Smog is the natural enemy of humanity. The pollution created by transportation, shipping, and industry has been killing us slowly for decades, contributing to numerous respiratory diseases. And according to a new joint study from the universities of Bologna and Bari in Italy, smog may have been a contributing factor in the spread of COVID-19.
By latching on to PM 2.5 particles in a smoggy city, the coronavirus could float around in the air just waiting to be breathed in by an unsuspecting passerby. With a recent massive reduction in air pollution associated with the world’s population on lockdown, the virus is finding fewer particles in the air to latch onto, and the study posits it is slightly less easy to spread as a result.
A recent UCLA study finds that the coronavirus is able to stay alive suspended in an aerosol, including smoggy air, for up to three hours. This corroborates the New England Journal of Medicine’s published findings, “SARS-CoV-2 remained viable in aerosols throughout the duration of our experiment (3 hours)”. If you were in a heavily polluted area for up to three hours after someone had coughed, you could have still contracted the virus from someone who had already vacated the premises. Or if it was borne on a light wind, perhaps even miles away from the original cough.
In addition to helping explain why the virus originally spread so quickly in mainland China, it also explains why it was so easily spread throughout the heavily industrial Po valley region. This may also explain the recent leveling off of new cases in the country. I am by no means attempting to belittle the efforts of China to contain the spread, but by going on a nearly country-wide lockdown, the reduction in pollution throughout the Asian continent is visibly evident.
According to data from NASA, air pollution levels have dropped by about a quarter over the course of February in China as coal-fired power plants and industrial facilities decreased activity, and drivers stayed off the roads.
As an asthmatic all my life, I’ve always been acutely aware of the changes in air quality. If we want to keep living on this planet (which is probably a good idea) then we need to start taking better care of it. Not only is better air quality good for us, and all of the flora and fauna of the world, it can also potentially reduce the spread of global-pandemic-level viral threat.
We have the technology to completely leave behind fossil fuels. Let’s all work toward making that a reality, and maybe the next massive virus will be contained before it gets out of control.