No evidence of airborne coronavirus transmission – WHO official

MANILA, Philippines – There is still no evidence of airborne transmission of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), a World Health Organization (WHO) official said on Tuesday, February 11.

WHO country representative to the Philippines Rabindra Abeyasinghe made the statement on Tuesday, in response to questions on whether WHO had evidence of the airborne transmission of the virus.

“I’m not quite sure what led to this rumor. It might have been something in the translation that led to this,” Abeyasinghe said, adding that the claims of the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau about the airborne transmission of the disease were still being studied. 

He reiterated that the confirmed modes of transmission of the new coronavirus were still “via droplets or through close contact.”  

Over the weekend, various news outlets quoted a Shanghai official as saying that the 2019-nCoV could be spread through the air “in theory,” but that more research was needed to confirm the veracity of the claim. Even China’s equivalent of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there is no evidence that the virus can form aerosols. 

Abeyansinghe said WHO continues to work with governments and independent research groups to establish more facts about the virus and the disease.  

“As we’ve said, there are many things about this disease we do not know yet, and our evidence at this point, points to the fact that this is largely a respiratory infection that can be transmitted via droplets or through close contact so we don’t have clear evidence that this is an airborne infection,” he said.  

“WHO is looking at understanding this new disease and that’s based on a lot of work being done by member states but also many research institutions and scientists,” the WHO official added.

So how is 2019-nCoV transmitted? Based on available information from WHO, 2019-nCoV is spread “through contact with an infected person through respiratory droplets generated when a person coughs or sneezes, or through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose.” 

This is why WHO and the Department of Health (DOH) recommend precationary measures like proper hygiene and proper cough etiquette to combat the spread of the disease. WHO and DOH have made it clear that proper washing of hands and coughing can prevent the spread of the virus.

Both agencies have also said that surgical masks need only be used by people showing symptoms of respiratory illness, as using it could protect non-infected persons from catching any virus, not just the 2019-nCoV. 

It remains unclear whether 2019-nCoV can survive on surfaces or so-called fomites, but current WHO evidence suggests that the virus can “survive a few hours,” but that “simple disinfectants can kill the virus making it no longer possible to infect people.”

Abeyasinghe said that WHO is working closely with the DOH in improving and expanding the latter’s laboratory capacity, as well as supporting it with containment and surveillance efforts.  

The UN agency had in fact just given the DOH necessary chemicals and reagents to test at least 1,500 samples for 2019-nCoV, according to Abeyasinghe. Laboratory testing for the new virus is being done by the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), but the government is looking to give the proper training to other laboratories to do the same. 

So far, the Philippines has confirmed 3 cases of 2019-nCoV in the country. One of them died after developing severe pneumonia due to the virus, but the other two recovered from the respiratory disease and have since been discharged from the hospital. 

Globally, the virus has killed 1,018 people and infected over 43,000, mostly in China, as of Tuesday. –