Story at a glance

  • COVID–19 is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • While it can spread through surfaces or objects, it's unclear whether the disease will spread through the air.
  • There have been reports suggesting the novel coronavirus could survive in the air for several hours, but the study has not yet been peer reviewed.

If you got to this page via a Google search, it's one of hundreds of similar searches that Google Trends has registered since early February. Many Americans are wondering whether they can contract COVID–19 just by breathing the same air as someone who is infected. And while a recent report suggests they could, the answer is that we don’t know for sure yet. 

A study awaiting peer review claims that COVID–10 could remain viable in aerosols, or a suspension of fine solid particles or liquid droplets in air or another gas, for multiple hours. The scientists at Princeton University, the University of California-Los Angeles and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who authored the report say that aerosol transmission is “plausible,” but the results are not conclusive. 

An important caveat is that the study and its findings have not yet been reviewed by other experts in the field for quality and accuracy. It’s a preprint, which means it’s a draft that is not yet ready for publication in a scholarly journal. It can take months to a year before studies are ready for publication, and preprints allow the public to learn about the research as it's happening. 

But preprints can be wrong. An unpublished paper from scientists in India erroneously reported a link between COVID–19 and HIV and has since been withdrawn. Harvard epidemiology Marc Lipsitch and Bill Hanage advise journalists and health officials in an essay to use caution when citing these findings.


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“Good reporting and science have to distinguish legitimate sources of information from no end of rumors, half-truths, financially motivated promotions of snake-oil remedies and politically motivated propaganda,” they wrote. 

That’s not to suggest that this study is wrong, or any of the above. But even if the findings are peer reviewed, they should be considered in the context of the study. The strains were tested in an aerosolized environment of 65 percent relative humidity and 69.8 to 73.4 degrees Fahrenheit (21 to 23 degrees Celsius). And the results haven’t been replicated yet. 

There is still much more research to be done before scientists can say whether coronavirus can travel through the air. In the meantime, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to recommend preventative measures including social distancing and washing your hands


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Published on Mar 13, 2020