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Breathing, speaking, coughing or sneezing: What drives transmission of SARS-CoV-2?

Authors
  • Stadnytskyi, V1
  • Anfinrud, P1
  • Bax, A1
  • 1 From the, Laboratory of Chemical Physics, NIDDK, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, USA.
Type
Published Article
Journal
Journal of internal medicine
Publication Date
Nov 01, 2021
Volume
290
Issue
5
Pages
1010–1027
Identifiers
DOI: 10.1111/joim.13326
PMID: 34105202
Source
Medline
Keywords
Language
English
License
Unknown

Abstract

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is highly contagious, as demonstrated by numerous well-documented superspreading events. The infection commonly starts in the upper respiratory tract (URT) but can migrate to the lower respiratory tract (LRT) and other organs, often with severe consequences. Whereas LRT infection can lead to shedding of virus via breath and cough droplets, URT infection enables shedding via abundant speech droplets. Their viral load can be high in carriers with mild or no symptoms, an observation linked to the abundance of SARS-CoV-2-susceptible cells in the oral cavity epithelium. Expelled droplets rapidly lose water through evaporation, with the smaller ones transforming into long-lived aerosol. Although the largest speech droplets can carry more virions, they are few in number, fall to the ground rapidly and therefore play a relatively minor role in transmission. Of more concern is small speech aerosol, which can descend deep into the LRT and cause severe disease. However, since their total volume is small, the amount of virus they carry is low. Nevertheless, in closed environments with inadequate ventilation, they can accumulate, which elevates the risk of direct LRT infection. Of most concern is the large fraction of speech aerosol that is intermediate-sized because it remains suspended in air for minutes and can be transported over considerable distances by convective air currents. The abundance of this speech-generated aerosol, combined with its high viral load in pre- and asymptomatic individuals, strongly implicates airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through speech as the primary contributor to its rapid spread. © 2021 Association for Publication of The Journal of Internal Medicine.

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