Newer variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, may become more airborne as they evolve, according to a recent study from the University of Maryland, published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal last week.
People infected with the Alpha strain of COVID-19 are exhaling 43 to 100 times more of the virus into the air compared to those infected with the original COVID-19 strain, a press explained.
The research found that the viral load in the air from Alpha variant patients was 18x more than could be explained by the increased amounts of virus in nasal swabs and saliva.
Researchers also found that face-coverings, such as surgical masks and cloths, reduce the amount of the virus breathed out into the air by about 50%.
"We know that the Delta variant circling now is even more contagious than the Alpha variant," said Dr. Don Milton, Professor of environmental health at the University of Maryland's School of Public Health, according to the study.
"Because research indicates successive variants keep getting better at traveling through the air, better ventilation and tight-fitting masks, in addition to vaccination, can help offset the increased risk," he added.
Back in the early days of the pandemic, scientists couldn't initially confirm that COVID-19 could be spread through particles in the air, and it was believed to be transmitted through actions such as coughing and sneezing.
“We already knew that virus in saliva and nasal swabs [were] increased in Alpha variant infections. Virus[es] from the nose and mouth might be transmitted by sprays of large droplets up close to an infected person. But, our study shows that the virus in exhaled aerosols is increasing even more,” said one of the study's authors, doctoral student Jianyu Lai.
The researchers recommend a "layered approach" to protect people in public-facing jobs and indoor spaces — these include vaccinations, tight-fitting masks, improved ventilation, increased filtration, and UV air sanitation.
“The take-home messages from this paper are that the coronavirus can be in your exhaled breath (and) is getting better at being in your exhaled breath, and using a mask reduces the chance of you breathing it on others," said Assistant Clinical Professor Jennifer German, a co-author of the study.