The question of viably aerosolizing SARS-CoV-2 has been around for some months. Now it is answered, and it's not good news for schools.
VIVAS Low-velocity Water Vapor Virus Collection System
Researchers at the University of Florida in the USA have isolated viable virus particles from air sampled from the hospital room of two CoVID-19 patients.
Researchers have been trying for months to determine if SARS-CoV-2 virus particles can remain viable in normal room air. As it turns out, collecting viable samples of virus from air is quite difficult.
What is an Aerosol?
An aerosol is a suspension of very small particles in the air for an indefinite period of time. Think of the smoke from your neighbor's campfire. Can you smell it from 100 yards away? 10 yards away? If you can, it's an aerosol.
Small particles that float in the air indefinitely for distances of greater than a few meters or more than a few feet can be considered as aerosols.
SARS-CoV-2 Sample Collection Difficulties
The issue is that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is quite fragile.
It has been long thought by experts to be able to float around for long periods of time. But it is extremely difficult to detect.
SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA type of virus. RNA is a single strand as opposed to DNA that is dual strand.
RNA vs. DNA Structures
RNA is more fragile and more subject to degradation than DNA. RNA contains a ribose sugar. Ribose sugars are more reactive and less stable in slightly alkaline environments than the molecular structure of DNA. The larger helical structure of RNA also makes it more susceptible to enzymatic activity that can also destroy the RNA structure.
SARS-CoV-2 Intact and Viable Virus Particles
SARS-CoV-2 wraps the RNA in a shell of proteins, lipids and water for protection. Fortunately this shell is easily damaged by drying, exposure to common household soap solutions that dissolve the lipids, exposure to UV light, and even by physical/mechanical stress. Once the shell of SARS-CoV-2 is broken, the RNA is exposed to chemical, physical and irradiation stressors that finally break the RNA molecule, rendering it harmless, unable to invade cells and unable to replicate.
Why Past Approaches Didn't Work
Past methods of collecting SARS-CoV-2 from atmospheric air have been unsuccessful. Gels have been tried unsuccessfully. Tubes with sampled airflows have been tried but resulted in excessive drying of virus particles, and it is even believed that aerodynamic shear mechanically destroyed the fragile virus structures.
The University of Florida researchers used a novel approach of collecting airborne particles into a low velocity pure water vapor. This vapor was then condensed and collected into a solution of proteins, salts, and sugars designed to keep the virus particles intact.
The air sampling machines (two different types of prototype machines) were located in a hospital room with two CoVID-19 patients and were position around 2 meters and 4.8 meters away from patients.
Viral RNA (vRNA) was extracted from the samples and were then purified. Next, the team performed rtRT-PCR (real-time reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction) procedures such that a unique, identifying section of the SARS-CoV-2 N-gene could be detected. Furthermore, and most importantly, the genetic sequence of the sample detected was identical to the genetic sequence of the most recently diagnosed patient who was located 4.8 meters from the detection machinery This was the final proof of aerosolizing of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles.
Viable virus was isolated. Viable virus was introduced to monkey kidney cells and were found to infect the cells, replicate and to generate cytopathic effects (CPE - cellular changes and cell-death). See the image below representing cell invasion and impending CPE.
SARS-CoV-2 Invading Child's Lung Tissue Example
Why is This Important?
Researchers have long suspected aerosolized spread of the virus based upon anecdotal and experiential evidence. This test confirms that viable virus is aerosolized and spreads over long distances in enclosed spaces.
What Does This Mean for School Reopening in the USA?
The answer to this question in unclear, but it is probably not good news.
The article referenced has not yet been peer reviewed but is being widely acclaimed by peer experts.
It shows that viable virus is aerosolized and infectious in cell cultures. It does not show that viable quantities of virus required to infect humans through known respiratory or touch pathways is commonly present.
Many researchers, however, believe aerosolized particles are a significant pathway to infection.
The research article preprint is here: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.08.03.20167395v1.full.pdf
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