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."
Social isolation. Strange pathogens outside. Strategic resource planning. Our Earthbound pandemic-driven social distancing could be mistaken for adapting to another, foreign planet. After all, we're donning all our protective apparel to go on an airplane or to the grocery store, nevertheless to just open our front door. Perhaps this is training for the world galactic visionaries Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson see in our future.
"There are parallels to the individual psychological experience, but from an operational standpoint, it is too different."
Ready to go live on Mars or something? Not so fast, experts say. The experience of shelter in place isn't parallel to being a space settler, or even an astronaut.
"Certain aspects are similar, but still, honestly, there are too many differences to say it preps us," says Angelo Vermeulen, co-founder of the art-science collective SEADS (Space Ecologies Art and Design) Network. In 2013, he served as a NASA crew commander for a four-month Mars-on-Earth mission, isolated in a geometric biodome with five others. "There are parallels to the individual psychological experience, but from an operational standpoint, it is too different. You don't need a spacesuit, aren't threatened by a thin atmosphere or worried about being overpowered by radiation."
Outside threats aside, we have a bigger experience gap: Most of us didn't see this pandemic coming and weren't trained to survive the current new normal. NASA astronauts get at least two years of basic training. We received none. Intergalactic explorers understand gravity, air pressure, and other important criteria based on decades of space knowledge. Alternatively, new novel coronavirus data is coming in real time, changing the threats, precautions, and needs dramatically. Things feel a little different when you're winging it.
Lastly, with respect to Apollo 13, space travelers have a timeline for when their experience will be over. There are mishaps, challenges and adjustments, but every well-supported journeyperson leaves Earth with an agenda (and a team back home to help keep them on track).
The pandemic, on the other hand, has no definitive end. It is unclear when a reliable vaccine will be readily available. It is also not known how long we should shelter-in-place, as pulling the trigger too early could bring another wave of illness. We are missing definitive milestones, which, Vermeulen says, would make our isolation experience easier to navigate. "When you're on a mission, the end date is always on the horizon. You can celebrate the midpoint and check off major milestones, which helps."
Also, unlike a kid pretending to be in a rocket, most of us didn't dream of one day being socially isolated for an indeterminate amount of time. "If you're ambitious and working in the field, then it is your goal in life to experience [space and the related isolation]," he says. "With the pandemic, though, nobody chose to do this."
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]
Go outside, close your eyes, and inhale. Do your lungs fill with fresh air – or are you taking a big deep breath of nasty fumes?
A new crop of tech startups is emerging to meet a growing demand for individualized clean air.
It depends, of course, on where you live – and for many people, the situation is worsening. According to a recent analysis by two Carnegie Mellon economists, particulate air matter pollution rose 5.5 percent in the U.S. between 2016 and 2018, resulting in almost 10,000 premature deaths.
Despite the urgency of the problem, there seems to be no indication that civic leadership will be protecting our air any time soon. The United States left the Paris Agreement recently, Brazil is still letting the Amazon burn and Australia lacks a national strategy for tackling air pollution, despite its recent catastrophic bushfires. China's deceptive coronavirus communication only underscores the point that safeguarding the public's health can take a backseat to politics and power.
But people still need to breathe, and now a new crop of tech startups is emerging to meet a growing demand for individualized clean air. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, I saw futuristic masks, smart goggles and self-contained apparatuses promising to filter the bad air away.
Obviously, a dollar store surgical mask wasn't going to cut it anymore.
"We have seen a huge amount of interest and a growing awareness of the issues with masks and respirators," says AO Air co-founder Dan Bowden. "The more regularly someone wears a mask or a respirator, the deeper our Atmos solution resonates with them. Leading markets have been Korea, China and, unexpectedly, Thailand."
Lined up for a Summer 2020 launch, the AO Air filter fits across your mouth from ear to ear – kind of like Geordi LaForge's Star Trek: The Next Generation eye sensors, but across your jaw line. The translucent mask continually pumps cool air for about 5 hours per charge and will cost $350 USD.
"Soon, we'll have private schools selling themselves on the air quality of the building."
"There is a movement towards individuals taking control over their own health, but also we see a great movement towards individuals taking control over the impacts that they have on the wider world," Bowden says. "We believe that the deeper systemic change has always come from humans working together and not being reliant upon high powers."
Bowden says the company wants to help the individual citizen, clean up the public building air ("factories, hospitals, workplaces") and, most interestingly, collect pollution metrics data via the masks. "We are looking forward to hearing how this information can be used in creative ways," Bowden adds. It is yet unclear how the data will be shared and how proprietary the information will be for AO Air and its competitors.
Scientific artist Michael Pinsky is taking a more experiential approach to raise awareness of the problem. In 2017, he launched traveling pollution pods, these giant, interconnected rooms recreating the air quality of several cities from London to Los Angeles. His exhibit has been on near constant tour, hitting the New York Climate Action Summit, the recent COP25 in Madrid, and other major events.
When I visited, I could handle being in the New Delhi air quality pod for only about 20 seconds. It made my eyes water and burn.
"Now you have new, 8 – 10 million British pound houses being built with premium air systems," Pinsky says. "Soon, we'll have private schools selling themselves on the air quality of the building." I mention my own children, whose schools we selected based on ratings and rankings. I could easily see "indoor air quality" being another metric. Perhaps another lever of privilege.
Pinsky gives a wily chuckle.
"The legislators have to get on top of it – or air will be privatized like space or our schools," he says.
"Clean air is a right," he adds. "Everyone should have it."