One of the strangest aspects of the pandemic was the early insistence by the WHO and the CDC that COVID was not airborne. “FACT: #COVID19 is NOT airborne.” the WHO tweeted on March 28, 2020, accompanied by a large graphic (at right). Even at that time, there was plenty of evidence that COVID was airborne.
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One of the strangest aspects of the pandemic was the early insistence by the WHO and the CDC that COVID was not airborne. “FACT: #COVID19 is NOT airborne.” the WHO tweeted on March 28, 2020, accompanied by a large graphic (at right). Even at that time, there was plenty of evidence that COVID was airborne. So why was the WHO so insistent that it wasn’t?
Ironically, some of the resistance to airborne transmission can be traced back to a significant achievement in epidemiology. Namely, John Snow’s groundbreaking arguments that cholera was spread through water and food, not bad air (miasma). Snow’s theory took a long time to be accepted but when the story of germ theory’s eventual triumph came to be told, the bad air proponents were painted as outdated and ignorant. This sentiment was so pervasive among physicians and health officials that anyone suggesting airborne transmission of disease was vaguely suspect and tainted. Hence, the WHOs and CDCs readiness to label airborne transmission as dangerous, unscientific “misinformation” promulgated on social media (see the graphic). In reality, of course, the two theories were not at odds as one could easily accept that some germs were airborne. Indeed, there were experts in the physics of aerosols who said just that but these experts were siloed in departments of physics and engineering and not in medicine, epidemiology and public health.
As a result of this siloing, we lost time and lives by telling people that they were fine if they kept to the 6ft “rule” and washed their hands, when what we should have been telling them was open the windows, clean the air with UVC, and get outside. Windows not windex.
Linsey Marr at Virginia Tech was one of the aerosol experts who took a prominent role in publicly opposing the WHO guidance and making the case for aerosol transmission (Jose-Luis Jimenez was another important example). Thus, it’s nice to see that Marr is among this year’s MacArthur “genius” award winners. A good interview with Marr is here.
It didn’t take a genius to understand airborne transmission but it took courage to put one’s reputation on the line and go against what seemed like the scientific consensus. Marr’s award is thus an award to a scientist for speaking publicly in a time of crisis. I hope it encourages others, both to speak up when necessary but also to listen.
Addendum: I didn’t take part in the aerosol debates but my wife, who has done research in aerosols and germs, told me early on that “of course COVID is airborne!” Wisely, I chose to take the word of my wife over that of the WHO and CDC.
Economics, History, Medicine, Science