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Coronavirus airborne debate reminder to stay vigilant: UBC epidemiologist

Last Updated Jul 7, 2020 at 1:35 pm PST

FILE - This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, yellow, emerging from the surface of cells, pink, cultured in the lab. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19. The sample was isolated from a patient in the U.S. On Friday, May 29, 2020, The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly asserting that coronavirus has an HIV protein that proves it was genetically modified. Experts say the coronavirus has no HIV sequences in it’s genetic makeup. Since the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, social media posts have tried to cast doubt on its origins. (NIAID-RML via AP)

An international doctor debate over how COVID-19 droplets travel raises an important concern: UBC epidemiologist

Stephen Hoption Cann says given the unknowns about the coronavirus, it's best to be vigilant

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry doesn't believe droplets will become airborne, linger like measles

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — As the debate continues over whether the novel coronavirus can be airborne or not, a UBC epidemiologist says there are still many unknowns, so being vigilant is vital.

RELATED: Is coronavirus airborne or not? B.C.’s Dr. Henry lays out the science of COVID-19

Epidemiologist Stephen Hoption Cann says the debate over the virus won’t change the cautious approach B.C. has taken to stem the spread, but it should serve as a reminder that as places ease restrictions, they can’t let up on precautions.

“It’s good to keep in mind this new information so that your relaxation of restrictions not allowing the infection rate to increase again,” he tells NEWS 1130.

He points to Australia as an example of how quickly a country can go from a flattened curve to a spike in cases.

“I think it’s a lot of this relaxation and not realizing fully what are some key ways that this thing spreads that allow this thing to take off again,” he says.

Given some amount of uncertainty, Hoption Cann says he is still concerned enough that he wouldn’t consider going to an indoor space like a gym, and would think twice about a restaurant.

“One of the key things is you know in a setting when you are with other people for a prolonged time, the two meters is not as helpful.”

An open letter from 239 scientists around the world has asked the World Health Organization to change its recommendations on the airborne transmission of the virus. It also points to evidence suggesting there is “significant potential for inhalation exposure” through microdroplets that can travel several metres through the air, or within a room, to infect people.

RELATED: Physical distance of two metres likely not enough to prevent spread of coronavirus, experts suggest

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry addressed the letter Monday, and says the scientific consensus at this point is the virus has larger droplets that don’t linger for long durations or travel long distances.

“And the ones that we most commonly associated with that type of transmission are viruses like measles, smallpox was one that would be transmitted through the air, as well as bacterial infections like tuberculosis,” she adds.

Henry says when talking about viruses like COVID-19 and influenza, they’re primarily in larger droplets that are spread by close contact with an infected person and don’t tend to survive in small particles.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization says it will review input from scientists regarding airborne transmission from the virus.

“We have been talking about the possibility of airborne transmission and aerosol transmission as one of the modes of transmission of COVID-19,” says Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove. “As well as droplets, foamites, we look at fecal to oral, mother to child, we look at animal to human, of course.”

-With files from Ash Kelly, Hana Mae Nassar, and the Canadian Press