World Health Organisation has consistently described reports of airborne transmission of the virus as ‘fake news’ but recent research in the US and a letter from the National Academy of Sciences to the White House strongly questions this. The letter sent by America’s scientific community on April 1st warned that ‘breathing’ is a means of transmission of the virus. If true, the news would confirm the instinct of the population of Asia, as well as official and unofficial government efforts in Thailand which has encouraged face mask usage.

As Thailand appears to be at least containing the coronavirus well below the scale seen in hard-hit European countries, new research and public advice in the United States, also now facing an outbreak of nightmarish proportions, has been issued encouraging the public to wear face coverings. If so, it would be some justification for irascible comments made by the Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul in early February when he became angry at a European man for failing to accept a free face mask. The new findings suggest that the Covid 19 virus may be partially airborne heightening the need for public care and circumspection.

Minister of Public Health Anutin Charnvirakul stepped in to his first controversy in early February when he took offence to a rejection of a free face mask by a foreigner at a busy BTS station in Bangkok. The man was offered the garment at an event the minister attended personally. Subsequently, official advice in Thailand suggested that face masks were not compulsory but that has changed significantly as the devastation of the virus ravaging western countries became clear and Thailand declared its state of emergency. Now the United States has reversed its guidance to the public after American scientists last week provided information to the White House suggesting this virus may be at least partially airborne following several studies in America.

In February’s Thailand’s controversial Minister of Public Health was embroiled in a controversy for lashing out at a western foreigner for refusing to accept a free face mask.

He was later criticised further when both he and the Prime Minister Prayuth Chan ocha appeared to accept expert western medical opinion and that of the World Health Organization, that face masks were not essential and in some situations could be counterproductive.

Now all has changed. For a start, the data from western countries showing a steep rise in infections accompanied by deaths has been noted by many experts. Graphs highlighting the point make an impressive case for arguing that populations should be wearing face masks during this crisis.

Western countries, where for strong cultural reasons, hiding one’s face is frowned upon and where mask-wearing has not been prevalent, appear to have suffered a far higher and faster growth rate of infection and consequently deaths.

Asian countries have fared better with lower rates of growth in infection according to the data

In comparison, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore showed a far more level spread of infection even when the virus broke out.

The medical reasoning behind the advice that face masks were not essential was based on an understanding initially derived from ‘expert’ reports from China that this disease was not airborne. 

The World Health Organisation has still not changed its position on this.

That body, which has been constantly behind the curve on reacting to this epidemic and its advisories to national governments, is still reported to be examining new evidence from the United States which suggests strongly that the Covid 19 virus does interact with the air and can be passed through aerosols.

On Friday, US President Donald Trump, supported by expert opinion, advised Americans to cover their face when in public.

President Trump said he wouldn’t be covering his face and that this was advice being given not an order.

Experts still sceptical that face masks alone have spared Asia from the ravaging effect of Covid 19

However, experts are still sceptical that the lower rise in infections in Asian countries is linked to mask-wearing. Ben Cowling is a professor at the University of Hong Kong.

He attributes the relative success of governments in Asia to their overall and coherent public health response.

This includes effective social distancing, cooperation from the public and ability to track infection networks. 

Virus tracking still effective in Thailand

This is still happening in Thailand.

Indeed in the last week, with a relatively low number of infections, the tracking of those infected by Thai authorities actually improved over some previous days just prior to the declaration of a state of emergency. This is a positive sign.

The kingdom updates its information through the Covid 19 Administration centre on a daily basis and an informative site prepared by the Ministry of Public Health also provides valuable intelligence.

See Thai virus data here courtesy of the Thai Ministry of Public Health

The information shows that the numbers hospitalised for the disease, although increasing, declined from a peak at the end of March just before the state of emergency was declared.

Singapore held up by an expert as an example because of the ‘entire package’ of measures

Professor Cowley particularly highlights Singapore as a success story.

‘Some places like Singapore have generally done very well without strongly emphasising masks,’ he pointed out. ‘It’s the entire package that is important.’

World Health Organisation still does not advocate face masks – need of medical staff the priority

The World Health Organisation still maintains its advisory against wearing face masks by the general public.

The reason for this is that the organisation believes that the masks are needed by frontline medical staff given the worldwide shortage.

Evidence contradicts the advice of US Surgeon General last month urging the public not to buy masks

Startling evidence from the United States and Germany may make the wearing of face masks by the general population a necessity and refute expert opinion given weeks ago by the US Surgeon General Dr Jerome Adams on February 29th.

That advice was that masks should only be worn by those suffering for the virus.

In his famous tweet at the end of February, the US Surgeon General strongly urged the US public not to buy Facemasks. He said that this was counterproductive. 

On Twitter, Dr Adam wrote: ‘Seriously people – STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing the general public from catching coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!’

Significant study in Nebraska

Nebraska University in America has now found strong evidence to suggest that the Covid 19 virus can be spread through the air and indeed that molecules of the virus linger in the air after sufferers were removed from hospital rooms which were tested and analysed.

World Health Organisation as late as March 28th declared ‘airborne’ claims as ‘fake news’

The World Health Organisation has stated categorically that claims that the disease is airborne are ‘fake news’ and its official advice is that wearing face masks is something for those infected and caregivers.

This was last updated on March 28th.

In spite of this, several European countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia have made the wearing of face masks mandatory in public during this crisis.

Findings vindicate Minister of Public Health Anutin

If these results prove correct, it would vindicate the prevailing opinion on the ground in Asia and that of Thailand’s Minister of Public Health that wearing a face mask or any face covering is an essential defence measure against this virus for yourself and also to protect other people you may come in contact with.

In recent weeks, Thai authorities at an official level in many instances at both national and local level, insist that people in public wear the apparel to help to prevent the spread of the virus.

The findings are also reinforced by German research from a Bundeswehr institute in Munich which shows that the virus can be strongly spread when people are only showing very mild symptoms. More chillingly, the researchers also suggest even those who have recovered can still pose a risk.

Aerosol effects of the virus confirmed by New England Medical Journal study on March 17th

These are fine particles that can stay in the air for hours after an infected person has been in a room or enclosed space.

The startling discovery was revealed in the New England Medical Journal on March 17th and is accompanied by research studies throughout the United States which are still being evaluated.

Enormous implications for health care workers

The groundbreaking information has strong implications for health staff in the front line combating the virus as it means that cleaning hands and wearing a mask in the presence of patients is no longer enough. 

The findings also mean the World Health Organisation has got it wrong again in their studies, investigations and co-operation with Chinese authorities.

The Director-General of the WHO Tedros Adhanom had already apologised at the end of January for describing the outbreak in China at the time as ‘moderate’. He has also been widely criticised for not urging stronger isolation of China to prevent the spread of the virus, at an earlier stage in this crisis which has enveloped the world.

US intelligence honing in on Chinese misinformation and suggests all Communist Party data is suspect

In the past week, US intelligence services have published information indicating that data from the Chinese Communist Party throughout this emergency has been deeply suspect. 

The US intelligence report this week cited by the New York Times said this: ‘The Chinese government itself does not know the extent of the virus and is as blind as the rest of the world.’

China vastly underestimated deaths says report

The report also strongly suggested that deaths in China have been vastly underestimated by official reports.

‘Midlevel bureaucrats in the city of Wuhan and elsewhere in China have been lying about infection rates, testing and death counts, fearful that if they report numbers that are too high they will be punished, lose their position or worse.’

UK cabinet committee not discounting Chinese state lab theory as the origin of the virus

Over the weekend, it is also reported that a special meeting of the Cobra committee of the UK cabinet this week discussed the origin of the virus.

British officials still feel based on ‘balance of scientific advice’ that the virus was ‘zoonotic’ meaning it was transmitted naturally from an animal to humans in the environs of Wuhan, China.

However, the meeting, chaired remotely by British PM Boris Johnson, is reported to have not discounted a circulating theory that the virus originated from a Chinese state bioresearch lab in the city of Wuhan.

Such claims have been rubbished by Chinese officials as ‘fake news’ based on ‘internet rumours’ and have led to arrests in the communist country.

Independent-minded US task force member Dr Anthony Fauci urges public to wear face coverings

The new information suggesting that the virus may be airborne was also raised this week by Dr Anthony Fauci, the independent-minded member of President Trump’s task force and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Dr Fauci has earned credibility with the public in the United States. He said that there was ‘recent information that the virus can actually be spread even when people just speak as opposed to coughing and sneezing.’

Dr Fauci was speaking to Fox News and urged Americans to wear face masks or clothing that covered their face from the threat.

US science academy tells White House that ‘normal breathing’ is a means of transmission

His comments came after a letter on April 1st from the National Academy of Sciences in the US to the White House which stated: ‘the results of available studies are consistent with aerosolization of virus from normal breathing.’

In response, the World Health Organisation has only suggested that the virus only poses an airborne threat during medical treatment.

Groundbreaking study in Nebraska shows the virus in the air after patients left hospital rooms

The US study in Nebraska by viral experts threatens to upend the policy advice if the WHO.

It appears to show that the Covid 19 virus can be assisted in its transmission through the air and the viral molecules can linger in the air for an extended period.

US researchers stress that Covid 19 is not fully airborne such as in measles transmission

The researchers taking part in the study for Nebraska Medicine and the National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska, went to great lengths to emphasise that these findings did not mean that the virus was airborne such as other infections such as measles.

However, their findings did highlight that ‘aerosols’ of the virus can linger in the air before falling on hard surfaces from where they could be then picked up for human transmission.

‘Genetic material’ from the virus in the air

What the researchers have identified is ‘genetic materials’ from the virus in the air in hospital bedrooms used by Covid 19 patients. 

The researchers are still studying the data from their tests to see if live ‘culturable’ aspects of the virus were also included in the air that was tested.

They emphasise, however, that their findings did show positive readings for hospital rooms and entrance ways used by patients during the groundbreaking test.

Massive implications for countries fighting the virus both in hospitals and public spaces

The study has significant implications for countries all over the world including Thailand battling the Covid 19 outbreak and beyond the argument for and against wearing face masks by the public.

The study has however yet to be published and reviewed by peers.

May signify the need to upgrade clothing and hospital facilities used by medics worldwide

The study was conducted in the United States under the auspices of the University of Nebraska.

Researchers have highlighted the key implication from the findings as to the need to upgrade protective clothing and measures within hospitals to assist front line staff in their work during this emergency.

The breakthrough information comes as scientists around the world in all countries are scrambling to find out more about this virus which has already infected over 1.2 million people and caused over 65,000 deaths.

The Nebraska University study also highlights the importance of hospital facilities being equipped with areas of negative airflow to effectively lock down the disease.

University of Nebraska took data from 11 hospital rooms and analysed it in microscopic detail

The US study took samples from 11 rooms used by former patients at hospitals. The rooms were isolated and scientists went to work examining their atmospheres.

In it, they were able to detect viral particles not only in the rooms but in the immediate vicinity outside the spaces such as doorways in corridors.

The frightening implications of these findings which, we must caution must still be examined more closely, is that this virus can spread even without human beings who are infected with the bug being in close proximity and even where surfaces are initially cleaned down.

German institute produced perplexing findings this week – recovered patients could spread the disease

The findings from the United States follow research in Germany which shows that the killer virus can be spread by users who may be infected but do not yet show symptoms.

The German institute also confirmed that the virus can be spread by some sufferers who had just recovered from the disease in some situations.

The research conducted by the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology in Munich took samples from the nose areas and throats of nine infected Covid 19 patients. 

The analysis conducted by researchers at the institute showed that the samples had a very high viral load even from patients only displaying mild symptoms.

Need for authorities to move quickly and admit when they’re wrong in this battle for lives

The situation highlights the importance of not only research but also the need for such findings to be reported and publicly aired no matter how disturbing.

This is especially important given the apparent intransigence and inflexibility of international bodies at a time where indecisiveness can be far more deadly to people’s lives than getting things wrong and admitting the mistake afterwards.

It also highlights the danger of the term ‘fake news’ because it is a term more concerned with control than it is with truth, effectiveness or being of public service.

There will always be gullible people in society just as there is also a large group in positions of influence and ‘experts’ more afraid of being found out or declared in the wrong then they are about saving lives. 

The instinct of Thai people across Asia with regard to face masks should also alert us to never underestimate or lightly discount public instinct, even herd instinct.

For foreigners in Thailand loath to wear one, it’s just another unpleasant but now unavoidable side effect of this coronavirus. This is a new reality, we can only hope it is a temporary one and decidedly play our part.

Further reading:

Health Minister in an outburst against western foreigners as 7 more are infected by the coronavirus

‘Zero’ – nationwide curfew announced on TV by the PM as the government steps up virus fight

24-hour curfew in the works as the government puts curbs on national travel with checkpoints on roads

Emergency could be extended as more people present themselves at hospitals due to the coronavirus

Another record rise in infections on Monday as top virologist predicts widespread transmission in Thailand

See Thai virus data here courtesy of the Thai Ministry of Public Health