The 60-Year-Old Scientific Screwup That Helped Covid Kill

Early one morning, Linsey Marr tiptoed to her dining room table, slipped on a headset, and fired up Zoom. On her computer screen, dozens of familiar faces began to appear. She also saw a few people she didn’t know, including Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead for Covid-19, and other expert advisers to the WHO. It was just past 1 pm Geneva time on April 3, 2020, but in Blacksburg, Virginia, where Marr lives with her husband and two children, dawn was just beginning to break.

Marr is an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech and one of the few in the world who also studies infectious diseases. To her, the new coronavirus looked as if it could hang in the air, infecting anyone who breathed in enough of it. For people indoors, that posed a considerable risk. But the WHO didn’t seem to have caught on. Just days before, the organization had tweeted “FACT: #COVID19 is NOT airborne.” That’s why Marr was skipping her usual morning workout to join 35 other aerosol scientists. They were trying to warn the WHO it was making a big mistake.

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Photograph: Djeneba Aduayom

Over Zoom, they laid out the case. They ticked through a growing list of superspreading events in restaurants, call centers, cruise ships, and a choir rehearsal, instances where people got sick even when they were across the room from a contagious person. The incidents contradicted the WHO’s main safety guidelines of keeping 3 to 6 feet of distance between people and frequent handwashing. If SARS-CoV-2 traveled only in large droplets that immediately fell to the ground, as the WHO was saying, then wouldn’t the distancing and the handwashing have prevented such outbreaks? Infectious air was the more likely culprit, they argued. But the WHO’s experts appeared to be unmoved. If they were going to call Covid-19 airborne, they wanted more direct evidence—proof, which could take months to gather, that the virus was abundant in the air. Meanwhile, thousands of people were falling ill every day.

On the video call, tensions rose. At one point, Lidia Morawska, a revered atmospheric physicist who had arranged the meeting, tried to explain how far infectious particles of different sizes could potentially travel. One of the WHO experts abruptly cut her off, telling her she was wrong, Marr recalls. His rudeness shocked her. “You just don’t argue with Lidia about physics,” she says.

Morawska had spent more than two decades advising a different branch of the WHO on the impacts of air pollution. When it came to flecks of soot and ash belched out by smokestacks and tailpipes, the organization readily accepted the physics she was describing—that particles of many sizes can hang aloft, travel far, and be inhaled. Now, though, the WHO’s advisers seemed to be saying those same laws didn’t apply to virus-laced respiratory particles. To them, the word airborne only applied to particles smaller than 5 microns. Trapped in their group-specific jargon, the two camps on Zoom literally couldn’t understand one another.

When the call ended, Marr sat back heavily, feeling an old frustration coiling tighter in her body. She itched to go for a run, to pound it out footfall by footfall into the pavement. “It felt like they had already made up their minds and they were just entertaining us,” she recalls. Marr was no stranger to being ignored by members of the medical establishment. Often seen as an epistemic trespasser, she was used to persevering through skepticism and outright rejection. This time, however, so much more than her ego was at stake. The beginning of a global pandemic was a terrible time to get into a fight over words. But she had an inkling that the verbal sparring was a symptom of a bigger problem—that outdated science was underpinning public health policy. She had to get through to them. But first, she had to crack the mystery of why their communication was failing so badly. 

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Marr spent the first many years of her career studying air pollution, just as Morawska had. But her priorities began to change in the late 2000s, when Marr sent her oldest child off to day care. That winter, she noticed how waves of runny noses, chest colds, and flu swept through the classrooms, despite the staff’s rigorous disinfection routines. “Could these common infections actually be in the air?” she wondered. Marr picked up a few introductory medical textbooks to satisfy her curiosity.

According to the medical canon, nearly all respiratory infections transmit through coughs or sneezes: Whenever a sick person hacks, bacteria and viruses spray out like bullets from a gun, quickly falling and sticking to any surface within a blast radius of 3 to 6 feet. If these droplets alight on a nose or mouth (or on a hand that then touches the face), they can cause an infection. Only a few diseases were thought to break this droplet rule. Measles and tuberculosis transmit a different way; they’re described as “airborne.” Those pathogens travel inside aerosols, microscopic particles that can stay suspended for hours and travel longer distances. They can spread when contagious people simply breathe.

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