Singapore

Airborne transmission of virus: Local experts say no cause for panic

This article is more than 12 months old

They say safe distancing, hygiene rules enough to keep possible airborne transmission in check

While airborne transmission of Covid-19 is a possibility, experts here say it is not cause for panic, and that safe distancing and hygiene measures already in place in Singapore are generally sufficient to keep it in check.

This comes as more than 230 scientists from 32 countries signed an open letter to the World Health Organisation (WHO), calling for a new set of safety recommendations in light of evidence that the virus can travel further and remain suspended in the air for longer, the New York Times reported.

If airborne transmission plays a significant role, NYT said, masks may be needed indoors, even in socially distant settings and healthcare workers may need N95 masks that filter out even the smallest respiratory droplets as they care for patients.

Dr Kristen Coleman, a research fellow at Duke-NUS Medical School's Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme, pointed out that aerosol transmission is not a problem to be feared.

"The (Government) has appropriately provided everyone with face masks and mandated their use in public, along with physical distancing and limiting social gatherings to five people."

Her advice: "The best thing people can do is to keep this transmission pathway in mind and follow all measures already put forth, especially if they plan to dine in at restaurants or host small gatherings at home during phase two of reopening.

"I would strongly encourage people to do this outdoors or in well-ventilated spaces, if possible, and to of course continue frequently washing hands with soap and water to minimise contact transmission."

But local infectious disease expert Leong Hoe Nam told The Straits Times that the WHO's response is necessarily slow as it can act only when there is almost irrefutable evidence.

"There are many things which are unknown. The complication from a misstep is someone's death," said Dr Leong, who practises at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital.

He noted that there is some evidence for the virus being able to linger in the air, and that given that Covid-19 is a new disease, taking a more risk-averse approach to tackling it is justifiable.

But he also pointed out that Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan have been able to control the number of cases without operating under the assumption that the virus is airborne.

Singapore, too, had kept case numbers small and manageable so far simply with the use of masks, social distancing and clean hands, he added.

Professor Wang Linfa, director at Duke-NUS Medical School's Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme, said that while there may have been cases of infection arising from aerosol transmission, to claim it is a significant route of transmission may be an overstatement in the absence of solid new data.

ST has contacted the Ministry of Health and the National Centre for Infectious Diseases for comments.

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