Technology

The 60-year-old science mistake that helped Covid kill


Epidemiologists have long noted that most respiratory insects require close contact to propagate. But in that small space, a lot can happen. A sick person may cough up droplets on your face, give off small droplets that you inhale, or shake your hand, which you then use to rub your nose. Any of these mechanisms may transmit the virus. “Technically speaking, it’s very difficult to separate them and see which is causing the infection,” says Marr. For long-range infections, only the smallest particles can be blamed. Close up, however, particles of all sizes were playing a role. However, for decades, droplets were seen as the primary cause.

Marr decided to collect some of her data. By installing air samplers in places like daycare and airplanes, I often found the flu virus where the textbooks said it shouldn’t be – hiding in the air, often in particles small enough to stay high for hours. And there was enough of it to make people sick.

In 2011, this should have been headline news. Instead, her manuscript was rejected by major medical journals. Even as she conducted new experiments that added evidence of the idea that influenza was infecting people via aerosols, there was only one specialist publisher. Royal Society Front Magazine, She was constantly receptive to her work. In the world of reclusive academia, aerosol has always been the domain of engineers and physicists, and pathogens have been a purely medical concern; Marr was one of the rare people who tried to transcend the split. “I was definitely marginal,” she says.

Believing this might help her overcome this resistance, she was trying from time to time to figure out the source of the defective 5 μm shape. But she was always stuck. Medical textbooks simply stated that it was true, without quoting, as if it was pulled from the air itself. Finally tired of trying, her search and life continued, and the 5-micron puzzle faded into the background. Until December 2019, when the paper crossed her office from Yuguo Li Lab.

Lee was an outdoor researcher at the University of Hong Kong and made a name for himself during the first outbreak of SARS, in 2003. His investigation into an outbreak at the Amoy Gardens Apartments complex provided the strongest evidence that Coronavirus can be transmitted through the air. But in the decades that followed, he also struggled to convince the public health community that their risk calculations were off the hook. In the end, he decided to do the math. Lee’s neat simulation showed that when a person coughed or sneezed, the heavy droplets were very few and the targets – open mouth, nose, and eyes – were too small to cause much infection. Therefore, Li’s team concluded that the Public Health Foundation was underdeveloped and that most colds, influenza, and other respiratory illnesses should be spread via aerosols instead.

They argued that their findings revealed the fallacy of the 5-μm boundary. And they went further, tracing the number back to a decades-old document that the CDC published for hospitals. Mar couldn’t help but feel a wave of excitement. A magazine asked her to review a paper for me, and she didn’t hide her feelings as she plotted her response. On January 22, 2020, you wrote: “This work is extremely important in challenging the current doctrine about how infectious diseases are transmitted in droplets and aerosols.”

Even while composing her note, the implications of Lee’s work were far from theoretical. Hours later, Chinese government officials cut off any travel to and from Wuhan, in a desperate attempt to contain a hitherto unnamed respiratory disease in major cities of 11 million people. With the epidemic shutting down country after country, the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control have required people to wash their hands, clean surfaces and maintain social distancing. They said nothing about masks or the dangers of being indoors.



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