Angry Citizens Pressure the World Health Organization to Fully Recognize COVID’s Airborne Spread
A new citizen movement is gathering steam to try to convince the influential World Health Organization to change its messaging about how the coronavirus is transmitted.
The new petition "COVID is Airborne" (www.covidisairborne.org) started in early November and has approximately 3,000 signatures. During this particularly dangerous acceleration of the pandemic, the petition's backers allege that the WHO is failing the public with mixed messaging and thus inadvertently fueling the wildfire of transmission.
"Early on in the pandemic, [WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus] said that coronavirus is airborne, but then in March, WHO tweeted that COVID-19 is not airborne, saying that it is primarily transmitted via droplets that are too heavy to hang in the air," says petition co-creator Jessica Bassett Allen.
The organization's late March messaging, still available on social media, is a digital graphic saying, "FACT CHECK: COVID-19 is NOT Airborne".
Screenshot of WHO's Tweet from March 28, 2020 that is still published.
The petition asks for a course correct: "We, citizens of the world, request that the World Health Organization (WHO) recognize the compelling scientific evidence that SARS-CoV-2 spreads by aerosol transmission ("airborne") and urge the WHO to immediately develop and initiate clear recommendations to enable people to protect themselves."
In the vacuum of the WHO's inaction, aerosol scientists around the world scrambled to raise awareness of what they saw as a grave error.
"Almost immediately after that [March 28] announcement, we formed a group of 239 scientists from many countries and disciplines to convince them that they should acknowledge that there is airborne transmission, but we find that they are totally dead set against it," says Dr. Jose Jimenez, a chemistry professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has studied aerosols for 20 years. He supports the citizen petition.
In a letter to the WHO back in July, he and his colleagues wrote: "Studies by the signatories and other scientists have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that viruses are released during exhalation, talking, and coughing in microdroplets small enough to remain aloft in air and pose a risk of exposure at distances beyond 1–2 m from an infected individual."
The scientists have also gone direct to the public with their findings: They published a comprehensive Google doc with detailed answers to many people's frequently asked questions about how to protect themselves, addressing issues ranging from the best masks and air filters to how to deal with passing someone outdoors and much more.
It's worth noting that the CDC has now modified its COVID FAQ to include airborne transmission as a "less common way" for the virus to spread. This update took place after the CDC stated in September that it is "possible" the virus spreads via airborne transmission – only to reverse course and remove the language from its website several days later. The CDC's website now states that some viruses, including SARS-Cov-2, "may be able to infect people who are further than 6 feet away from the person who is infected or after that person has left the space."
Basset Allen notes that after the scientists' open letter, the WHO "added ventilation to public communications about how to prevent infection, but they haven't explained why."
When contacted, a WHO representative had no specific comment and shared its late March announcement as well as its latest guidelines on transmission. In part, its statement says, "Current evidence suggests that the main way the virus spreads is by respiratory droplets among people who are in close contact with each other. Aerosol transmission can occur in specific settings, particularly in indoor, crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces, where infected person(s) spend long periods of time with others, such as restaurants, choir practices, fitness classes, nightclubs, offices and/or places of worship. More studies are underway to better understand the conditions in which aerosol transmission is occurring outside of medical facilities where specific medical procedures, called aerosol-generating procedures, are conducted."
A forceful and clear message acknowledging the evidence could make it easier to standardize school and office ventilation, petitioners argue.
Aerosol scientist Jimenez was dismayed by the WHO's response.
"The first part is an error in my opinion," he says. "Current evidence suggests that the main way the virus spreads is inhalation of aerosols.…WHO is way behind, unfortunately.
"The second part is incomplete," Jimenez continues. "Aerosol transmission can happen in those indoor crowded low-ventilation spaces. But if aerosols can accumulate under those conditions and cause infection, they must be extremely infective in close proximity when talking, since they are much more concentrated there. Just like talking close to a smoker you would inhale much more smoke (which is an aerosol) than if you were in the same room, but let's say 10 or 15 feet away."
He adds, "The WHO and others are making the assumption that if this goes through the air, then everyone who is infected is putting a lot of virus into the air at all times, but we know that's wrong: People are infectious for a short period of time before and during their symptoms. In China, they have measured how much virus comes out of people, and they see that the emission is sporadic: The virus can come out in millions of viral [particles] per hour, but it doesn't happen all the time."
The petition's co-creator, Basset Allen, says that her life experience showed her the best way to make a change. "My involvement with this effort is entirely personal," she says. "I was first introduced to HIV treatment activism as a college student and what I learned about campaigning and power has been relevant in almost every other project I've worked on since then. HIV activism taught me that everyday people can win big, life-saving policy changes if they build expertise and work strategically to push decision makers."
The petition and its advocates argue that the WHO's mixed messaging is causing real harm. For instance, a forceful and clear message acknowledging the evidence could make it easier to standardize school and office ventilation, they argue. Anecdotally, some schools have refused to install HEPA filtration in their classrooms due to a lack of specific guidance from health agencies. (Note: The CDC now recommends improving central air filtration and considering the use of portable HEPA filters in classrooms.)
As the holidays approach, a clear and unified message from all influential health agencies would also help people understand why it is still important to wear masks while physical distancing, especially indoors.
"Personally, I cheered when I heard President-Elect Biden mention ventilation upgrades in schools during the first 10 minutes of his October town hall event, and again in the second debate," Basset Allen says. "Unfortunately, we're still more than two months away from the Biden administration taking over the U.S. COVID-19 response and we have to do absolutely everything we can right now to save as many lives as possible. Increasing awareness of airborne transmission and mitigation strategies can't wait. WHO can use its power to help close that gap, here and around the world."
In recent years, researchers of Alzheimer’s have made progress in figuring out the complex factors that lead to the disease. Yet, the root cause, or causes, of Alzheimer’s are still pretty much a mystery.
In fact, many people get Alzheimer’s even though they lack the gene variant we know can play a role in the disease. This is a critical knowledge gap for research to address because the vast majority of Alzheimer’s patients don’t have this variant.
A new study provides key insights into what’s causing the disease. The research, published in Nature Communications, points to a breakdown over time in the brain’s system for clearing waste, an issue that seems to happen in some people as they get older.
Michael Glickman, a biologist at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, helped lead this research. I asked him to tell me about his approach to studying how this breakdown occurs in the brain, and how he tested a treatment that has potential to fix the problem at its earliest stages.
Dr. Michael Glickman is internationally renowned for his research on the ubiquitin-proteasome system (UPS), the brain's system for clearing the waste that is involved in diseases such as Huntington's, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's. He is the head of the Lab for Protein Characterization in the Faculty of Biology at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. In the lab, Michael and his team focus on protein recycling and the ubiquitin-proteasome system, which protects against serious diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cystic fibrosis, and diabetes. After earning his PhD at the University of California at Berkeley in 1994, Michael joined the Technion as a Senior Lecturer in 1998 and has served as a full professor since 2009.
Dr. Michael Glickman
When Drew Weissman received a call from Katalin Karikó in the early morning hours this past Monday, he assumed his longtime research partner was calling to share a nascent, nagging idea. Weissman, a professor of medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and Karikó, a professor at Szeged University and an adjunct professor at UPenn, both struggle with sleep disturbances. Thus, middle-of-the-night discourses between the two, often over email, has been a staple of their friendship. But this time, Karikó had something more pressing and exciting to share: They had won the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The work for which they garnered the illustrious award and its accompanying $1,000,000 cash windfall was completed about two decades ago, wrought through long hours in the lab over many arduous years. But humanity collectively benefited from its life-saving outcome three years ago, when both Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech’s mRNA vaccines against COVID were found to be safe and highly effective at preventing severe disease. Billions of doses have since been given out to protect humans from the upstart viral scourge.
“I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else,” said Katalin Karikó. “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”
Unlocking the power of mRNA
Weissman and Karikó unlocked mRNA vaccines for the world back in the early 2000s when they made a key breakthrough. Messenger RNA molecules are essentially instructions for cells’ ribosomes to make specific proteins, so in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers started wondering if sneaking mRNA into the body could trigger cells to manufacture antibodies, enzymes, or growth agents for protecting against infection, treating disease, or repairing tissues. But there was a big problem: injecting this synthetic mRNA triggered a dangerous, inflammatory immune response resulting in the mRNA’s destruction.
While most other researchers chose not to tackle this perplexing problem to instead pursue more lucrative and publishable exploits, Karikó stuck with it. The choice sent her academic career into depressing doldrums. Nobody would fund her work, publications dried up, and after six years as an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Karikó got demoted. She was going backward.
“I thought of going somewhere else, or doing something else,” Karikó told Stat in 2020. “I also thought maybe I’m not good enough, not smart enough. I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments.”
A tale of tenacity
Collaborating with Drew Weissman, a new professor at the University of Pennsylvania, in the late 1990s helped provide Karikó with the tenacity to continue. Weissman nurtured a goal of developing a vaccine against HIV-1, and saw mRNA as a potential way to do it.
“For the 20 years that we’ve worked together before anybody knew what RNA is, or cared, it was the two of us literally side by side at a bench working together,” Weissman said in an interview with Adam Smith of the Nobel Foundation.
In 2005, the duo made their 2023 Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough, detailing it in a relatively small journal, Immunity. (Their paper was rejected by larger journals, including Science and Nature.) They figured out that chemically modifying the nucleoside bases that make up mRNA allowed the molecule to slip past the body’s immune defenses. Karikó and Weissman followed up that finding by creating mRNA that’s more efficiently translated within cells, greatly boosting protein production. In 2020, scientists at Moderna and BioNTech (where Karikó worked from 2013 to 2022) rushed to craft vaccines against COVID, putting their methods to life-saving use.
The future of vaccines
Buoyed by the resounding success of mRNA vaccines, scientists are now hurriedly researching ways to use mRNA medicine against other infectious diseases, cancer, and genetic disorders. The now ubiquitous efforts stand in stark contrast to Karikó and Weissman’s previously unheralded struggles years ago as they doggedly worked to realize a shared dream that so many others shied away from. Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman were brave enough to walk a scientific path that very well could have ended in a dead end, and for that, they absolutely deserve their 2023 Nobel Prize.