Infectious Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in Exhaled Aerosols and Efficacy of Masks During Early Mild Infection


Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) epidemiology implicates airborne transmission; aerosol infectiousness and impacts of masks and variants on aerosol shedding are not well understood.We recruited coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases to give blood, saliva, mid-turbinate and fomite (phone) swabs, and 30-minute breath samples while vocalizing into a Gesundheit-II, with and without masks at up to 2 visits 2 days apart. We quantified and sequenced viral RNA, cultured virus, and assayed serum samples for anti-spike and anti-receptor binding domain antibodies.We enrolled 49 seronegative cases (mean days post onset 3.8 ± 2.1), May 2020 through April 2021. We detected SARS-CoV-2 RNA in 36% of fine (≤5 µm), 26% of coarse (>5 µm) aerosols, and 52% of fomite samples overall and in all samples from 4 alpha variant cases. Masks reduced viral RNA by 48% (95% confidence interval [CI], 3 to 72%) in fine and by 77% (95% CI, 51 to 89%) in coarse aerosols; cloth and surgical masks were not significantly different. The alpha variant was associated with a 43-fold (95% CI, 6.6- to 280-fold) increase in fine aerosol viral RNA, compared with earlier viruses, that remained a significant 18-fold (95% CI, 3.4- to 92-fold) increase adjusting for viral RNA in saliva, swabs, and other potential confounders. Two fine aerosol samples, collected while participants wore masks, were culture-positive.SARS-CoV-2 is evolving toward more efficient aerosol generation and loose-fitting masks provide significant but only modest source control. Therefore, until vaccination rates are very high, continued layered controls and tight-fitting masks and respirators will be necessary.

Clinical Infectious Diseases
Nicolae Sapoval
Nicolae Sapoval
PhD student

Nick (4th year PhD student) obtained a B.S. degree in Computer Science and a B.S. with Honors in Mathematics from the University of Chicago. At the University of Chicago Nick worked in wireless networks research and later in computational biophysics focusing on conformational transition modeling for insulin degrading enzyme. His current interests are in the areas of computational biology with a focus on genomic data.