This Year, the SARS-2 Coronavirus Changed Science


The great old Ducktales Theater character is now on YouTube! Who knew?

As a parting gift for readers this year, I’d like to refer people to this NPR story on how the SARS-2 coronavirus is transmitted — and how it took a new scientific view of virus transmission to understand it to get our scientific response to the virus on track.

In other words, it shows how Science (capitalized here because I refer to the institution of scientific inquiry) originally got SARS-2 wrong — and then swallowed hard, listened to some dissident voices, and used the scientific method to get it right.

It will allow you to answer the question of why Dr. Fauci got some things wrong in the earliest days of Covid, and why he now gets them right.

While the vaccines may get most of the glory — even though we still don’t know for whom and for how long they will be effective because of the rushed testing — this story shows how everyday practice of science, especially by those with minority viewpoints, can get it right. It shows scientific knowledge changing with extreme speed earlier this year in the face of a crisis.  It’s truly inspiring.

This story covers what I think people understand least about the danger of SARS-2-CoV (aka “the coronavirus”) in our lives, which has become even more important to understand given the revelation that the new mutation of the virus identified in Great Britain — 70% more easily transmitted than what we’re used to — has reached Los Angeles County.

Except for a relatively few scientists who weren’t being listened to, the scientific consensus a year ago — in fact, 8-9 months ago — was that there were only two types of airborne virus transmission: the measles virus, which just floated in air until it died or was breathed in — or viruses that defended on physical contact, like someone sneezing in your face.

SARS-Cov-2, which causes Covid-19, spread through an intermediate method — or, more accurately, a range of them. It couldn’t survive naked in the air like measles, but it *could* survive suspended in floating droplets of water: for example, from a sneeze or a cough, or even extensive expression of air, as in singing, loud talking, or even regular talking over an extended time.

That is why small indoor gatherings over the holidays with people outside of one’s normal household are such a major vector of the virus. Singing in a large hall, loud talking in a bar, or even hours of normal talk in a much smaller living room can saturate the air with enough virus to transmit it. Being outside is not always a sufficient alternative, because direct contact (blowing your virus-containing breath up someone’s nose) and close contact (allowing too much air that you’ve breathed  up someone’s nose) are still vectors.  They’re just not the main ones.

It’s too late to get to people before tonight’s festivities, but read this and keep it in mind before you next gather in 2021.  Wear your mask correctly — covering both mouth and nose, with small breaks only to insert food or drink into your mouth, replacing it before you inhale or exhale — and have a safe and happy 2021!

I’m including as much fair use quotation as I can below to get you started:

For Scientists Who Study Virus Transmission, 2020 Was A Watershed Year

“In the past year, we’ve come farther in understanding airborne transmission, or at least kind of beyond just the few experts who study it, than we have in decades,” says [Virginia Tech virologist studying viral transmission Linsey] Marr. “Frankly, I thought it would take us another 30 years to get to where we are now.”

. . .

At the start of this coronavirus outbreak, the prevailing assumption among many medical experts was that respiratory viruses primarily spread through droplets of saliva and mucus that fly into the air after a cough or a sneeze. These were thought to travel only a short distance before falling to a surface. Public health messages consequently urged people to wash their hands and avoid touching their faces.

The coronavirus wasn’t thought to be “airborne,” a word associated with viruses like the one that causes measles. An airborne virus was widely considered to be a germ that could travel in tiny particles called aerosols that hang suspended in the air and linger for quite a while, potentially traveling long distances.

But, in reality, there’s no clear cutoff between a virus that travels in aerosols and one that travels in larger droplets, says [Virginia Tech scientist studying viral transmission Linsey] Marr. Infected people can give off respiratory viruses in particles of all different sizes that can travel a variety of distances, and big droplets can evaporate away into smaller ones. Very close to an infected person, the concentration of airborne virus could be high, and others could simply inhale it.

As the new coronavirus began to spread, it sure seemed like airborne spread — at short range — might be critical.

Read the rest — PLEASE read the rest! — at the link in the article title.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)