Can you catch coronavirus by breathing near an infected person?

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In a letter sent to the White House on Wednesday, a panel of experts said that while available research has indicated that the novel coronavirus may enter the air via bioaerosols generated when an infected person breathes, it is too early to say whether the illness may be transmitted in this manner.

“While specific research on COVID-19 is limited, results of available studies support the possibility that viral particles can be spread via bioaerosols generated directly by exhalation of patients with COVID-19,” the National Academies Standing Committee on Emerging Infectious Diseases and 21st Century Health Threats, said. “However, there is not currently enough evidence to confirm that these particles are viable and in amounts sufficient to cause infection.”


The panel cited several studies out of Hong Kong, the University of Nebraska, The New England Journal of Medicine and others that found evidence of the viral RNA in the air where infected patients were present. However, the experts said that more research into how many infections are produced as a result of air droplets is necessary to better understand the implications.

“Individuals vary in the degree to which they produce bioaerosols through normal breathing,” the letter said. “This may have a bearing on [the] efficiency of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 by different infected but asymptomatic individuals.”

Another expert, who is not affiliated with the panel, previously told Fox News that the current understanding of coronavirus transmission “is incomplete and rapidly evolving.”


Dr. Linda Anegawa, an internist with virtual health platform PlushCare, said that research coming from China, Italy, and Iran, as well as the article in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggests that there is “reason to believe that the virus causing COVID-19 may linger in microdroplets in the air.”

However, Anegawa was also quick to note that contracting the virus in this way as opposed to having direct contact with an infected person would greatly depend on the duration of exposure and viral load.

The issue about whether the virus can be transmitted through the air is likely to find it's way into the debate on if the general public should be wearing masks to protect against COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as the World Health Organization (WHO), maintain that for now, face masks and protective N95 respirators should be reserved for medical professionals and first responders.


But earlier this week, it emerged that officials at the CDC may be mulling a change that would possibly recommend Americans fashion a nonmedical homemade mask to wear when leaving the house.

“If the CDC does put out such guidance, I would respect it. I can tell you having drafted many CDC guidelines over the years that these are done very carefully and on the best available evidence,” former CDC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Amler told Fox News on Tuesday. “Those guidelines, when they do go out, are not casual or frivolous.”

“It’s protective for people around you — that’s going to be the case whether or not there is a shortage,” he added of masks.


Some argue that the masks could be useful to stop the spread among asymptomatic carriers, as the virus can be transmitted via respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. But others say it may give a false sense of security to people who then forego regular hand washing and social distancing.

Fox News' Madeline Farber contributed to this report.