The Dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 Infectivity with Changes in Aerosol Microenvironment

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2022-01-15 09:00:03

Understanding the factors that influence the airborne survival of viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 in aerosols is important for identifying routes of transmission and the value of various mitigation strategies for preventing transmission. We present measurements of the stability of SARS-CoV-2 in aerosol droplets (∼5-10µm equilibrated radius) over timescales spanning from 5 seconds to 20 minutes using a novel instrument to probe survival in a small population of droplets (typically 5-10) containing ∼1 virus/droplet. Measurements of airborne infectivity change are coupled with a detailed physicochemical analysis of the airborne droplets containing the virus. A decrease in infectivity to ∼10 % of the starting value was observable for SARS-CoV-2 over 20 minutes, with a large proportion of the loss occurring within the first 5 minutes after aerosolisation. The initial rate of infectivity loss was found to correlate with physical transformation of the equilibrating droplet; salts within the droplets crystallise at RHs below 50% leading to a near instant loss of infectivity in 50–60% of the virus. However, at 90% RH the droplet remains homogenous and aqueous, and the viral stability is sustained for the first 2 minutes, beyond which it decays to only 10% remaining infectious after 10 minutes. The loss of infectivity at high RH is consistent with an elevation in the pH of the droplets, caused by volatilisation of CO2 from bicarbonate buffer within the droplet. Three different variants of SARS-CoV-2 were compared and found to have a similar degree of airborne stability at both high and low RH.

Significance The aerosol microenvironment is highly dynamic exposing pathogens, such as the SARS-CoV-2 virus when exhaled in respiratory aerosol, to extreme conditions of solute concentration, pH and evaporative cooling. Yet surviving this environment is a key step in the transmission of such pathogens. Understanding the impact that airborne transport has on pathogens and the influence of environmental conditions on pathogen survival can inform the implementation of strategies to mitigate the spread of diseases such as COVID-19. We report changes in the infectivity of the airborne virus over timescales spanning from 5 s to 20 minutes and demonstrate the role of two microphysical processes in this infectivity loss: particle crystallisation and aerosol droplet pH change.

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