Groningen hospital to investigate coronavirus aerosol spread

A man cycling through Amsterdam wearing a respirator-style medical mask
A man cycling through Amsterdam wearing a respirator-style medical mask. March 2020jaalbersDepositPhotosDeposit Photos

The University Medical Center in Groningen (UMCG) is teaming up with the University of Twente to investigate whether aerosols play a role in the spread of the coronavirus. UMCG will investigate these tiny moisture droplets for the presence of the virus, and whether there are enough to cause more people to become infected. The University of Twente will also look into the environmental factors involved, lead researcher Mariette Lokate said to RTV Noord.

At this stage, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Dutch public health institute RIVM assume that the coronavirus spreads mainly through droplets that are spread when people sneeze or cough. Various other scientists raised concerns about the effect of aerosols, released while talking or even just breathing, that can linger in unventilated areas for hours. WHO and RIVM both state that aerosols can play a role in spreading the virus, but it remains unclear how big a role these droplets play in new infections.

The Groningen hospital will now investigate exactly that. The study will revolve around UMCG patients and employees who test positive for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus behind the ongoing pandemic. Air measurements will be taken in different rooms they visit to check whether the virus is present in the air, and if so whether the virus is alive and present in a great enough concentration to cause infection.

"We suck the air up into a liquid. The virus particles remain in that liquid and we put it on a culture. That way we can see if the virus is alive," Lokate said to the broadcaster. If there is indeed live virus in the aerosols, the researchers will look at how much is there. A certain concentration of CoV-2 is needed to cause a new infection. "We know that approximate amount." 

The University of Twente will look at the physical processes and environmental factors. "They look into the room where the patient is located. What is the influence of the extraction and ventilation, where can we expect to find aerosols?" Lokate explained. 

The researchers expect to have results ready for presentation by December 1. "Then we want to demonstrate whether and in which social situations and during which medical procedure the distribution via aerosols take place."