Coronavirus does spread through the air and lingers in rooms, study

Coronavirus does spread through the air and lingers in rooms long after patients have left, study finds

  • US researchers found highly contagious bug lurking in air inside patients’ rooms 
  • Virus had also spread into hospital corridors where staff were coming in and out
  • Coronavirus has now infected 785,282 people and killed almost 38,000 patients
  • Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?

The killer coronavirus can spread through the air and remain contagious for hours, another study has suggested.

US scientists found high levels of the bug lurking in the air in rooms long after patients had left.

What’s more is that traces of the coronavirus were also discovered in hospital corridors outside patients’ rooms, where staff had been coming in and out.

The University of Nebraska researchers behind the study say the finding highlights the importance of protective clothing for healthcare workers. 

It follows a wealth of studies that have suggested the highly contagious disease does not just spread via droplets in a cough or sneeze.

Scientists around the world are scrambling to understand how the virus, which has now infected 785,282 people and killed almost 38,000, sheds and spreads.

The killer coronavirus can spread through the air and remain contagious for hours in patients’ rooms, another study has confirmed. Pictured: An Indian Nurse arranges beds of at Civil Hospital in Nagaon District, Assam

Traces of the coronavirus were discovered in the hospital corridors where staff had been coming in and out, highlighting the need for protective equipment in hospitals. Pictured: Healthcare worker Vanessa Chang poses for a photo in the Coronavirus screening clinic at Cabrini private hospital in Melbourne, Australia

The latest study, which has not been peer-reviewed by other scientists yet or published in a scientific journal, took samples from 11 patients’ rooms after they had been placed in isolation following a diagnosis.

The researchers found viral particles in the air both inside the rooms and in the hallways outside of the rooms. 

Their finding suggests people may be able to contract the bug without ever being in direct close proximity to an infected person.

The study’s authors said this highlights the importance of wearing personal protective equipment (PPE).

Shortages in the UK have meant NHS workers cannot get their hands on PPE, with some staff resorting to buying their own from DIY stores.  

Lead author James Lawler, an infectious diseases expert at the Nebraska University, said in a statement: ‘Our team was already taking airborne precautions with the initial patients we cared for.

Scientists around the world are scrambling to understand how the virus, which has now infected 785,282 people and killed almost 38,000, sheds and spreads


A picture of brave nurse wearing just a basic apron and gloves to protect herself from coronavirus amid a global shortage of protective equipment – when what staff should be wearing is all the kit on the right

PATIENTS INFECTED WITH THE VIRUS ARE MOST CONTAGIOUS BEFORE THEY GET SEVERE SYMPTOMS

Patients infected with the killer coronavirus shed large amounts of the virus before severe symptoms appear, a study has shown.

And people continue to remain contagious even after they feel better, researchers found.

The German study – one of the first coronavirus studies to have been conducted outside China – confirms the theory that people can spread the virus before they even know they are infected.

But it also suggests they can spread it after they recover from the infection.

Researchers from the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology in Munich took samples from the nose and throat of nine COVID-19 patients. 

Results showed the samples had a very high viral load when the subjects were only showing minor symptoms, such as fatigue or a cough..

‘This report reinforces our suspicions. It’s why we have maintained COVID patients in rooms equipped with negative airflow and will continue to make efforts to do so – even with an increase in the number of patients.

‘Our health care workers providing care will be equipped with the appropriate level of personal protective equipment. Obviously, more research is required to be able to characterize environmental risk.’ 

The researchers also found traces of the bug on commonly used items such as toilets, adding to the theory that the virus can spread on surfaces.

Fears the virus can survive on surfaces have existed since the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, last December.

England’s chief medical officer has warned people can get infected by touching any contaminated surfaces and then touching their face.

Professor Chris Whitty said the coronavirus can stay contagious on hard metal or plastic surfaces like door handles or handrails for as long as three days. 

It comes after the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) yesterday revealed there are medical staff working to save lives and turn the tide in Britain’s war with coronavirus that have no access to basic protective clothing at all. 

Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive and general secretary of the RCN, has blasted the ‘unacceptable’ levels of masks, gloves and aprons in some hospitals and care homes.

Whistleblowers in the NHS say they have been ‘hiding’ safety equipment for their next shifts and others have gone off sick fearing they will fall ill if they don’t get away from work.

Dame Donna’s warning based on worried emails and phone calls from nurses came as horrifying pictures of unprotected staff on the frontline emerged today despite new Government guidance making it clear that anyone within 3ft of coronavirus victims must wear full PPE.

She said: ‘I am hearing from nurses who are treating patients in Covid-19 wards without any protection at all. This cannot continue. They are putting themselves, their families and their patients at risk.

‘Every minute we wait is a minute too long. All nursing staff, no matter where they work, must feel safe. We need action, we need equipment, we need it now’.

She added: ‘The Government is finally prioritising Covid-19 testing for NHS staff, including social care, but it is completely unacceptable that weeks into this crisis there are colleagues in all settings – hospitals, community or care homes – who have not been provided with personal protective equipment.

‘As the professional trade union representing potentially the largest group of affected workers, the RCN has said repeatedly that we will not accept anything less than aprons, gloves and masks for all staff, in all settings. But this is a minimum – and that is why we are so disappointed even that level of protection has yet to be provided’.

Public Health England today issued stricter guidance on personal protective equipment (PPE) when within three feet of a coronavirus patient 

NHS medics must wear full protective equipment if they come within three feet of a coronavirus patient, the government warned today, as shortages of the gear saw a brave nurse forced to dress in just an apron and gloves.

But numerous medical staff including doctors and nurses have expressed serious concerns about a lack of PPE in NHS hospitals.

One described how staff are ‘hiding’ equipment out of sheer desperation.

Some workers are saying they are sick as they fear the provisions are inadequate, another said.

Another doctor compared the situation to sending a soldier to war without the necessary equipment while a junior doctor said it feels like it is ‘inevitable’ that they will contract the virus due to a lack of PPE

Public Health England has issued stricter guidance on personal protective equipment (PPE), making it a requirement to wear a face mask, gloves, an apron and eye-protection as a shield against infectious airborne droplets.

A global shortage of the equipment medics and carers need to protect themselves against Covid-19 have led to shortfalls in the UK, with warnings the lives of thousands of NHS staff are being put at risk.  

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS?

What is the coronavirus? 

A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.

The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.

Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.

The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.

Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals. 

‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses). 

‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’ 

The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.

By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.

The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000. 

Where does the virus come from?

According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.

The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.

Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat. 

A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.

However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.

Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.

‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’  

So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it? 

Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.

It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.

Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.

Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.

‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’

If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die. 

‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.

‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’

How does the virus spread?

The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.

It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.

Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person. 

What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?

Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.

If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.

In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.

Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why. 

What have genetic tests revealed about the virus? 

Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world. 

This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.   

Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.

However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.

This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.   

More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.

How dangerous is the virus?  

The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.

Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.

However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.

Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.

Can the virus be cured? 

The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.

Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.

No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.

The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.

Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.

People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.

And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).

However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.

Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?   

The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’. 

Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.

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