The Teeny, Tiny Scientific Screwup That Helped Covid Kill

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Epidemiologists have long observed that most respiratory bugs require close contact to spread. Yet in that small space, a lot can happen. A sick person might cough droplets onto your face, emit small aerosols that you inhale, or shake your hand, which you then use to rub your nose. Any one of those mechanisms might transmit the virus. “Technically, it’s very hard to separate them and see which one is causing the infection,” Marr says. For long-distance infections, only the smallest particles could be to blame. Up close, though, particles of all sizes were in play. Yet, for decades, droplets were seen as the main culprit.

Marr decided to collect some data of her own. Installing air samplers in places such as day cares and airplanes, she frequently found the flu virus where the textbooks said it shouldn’t be—hiding in the air, most often in particles small enough to stay aloft for hours. And there was enough of it to make people sick.

In 2011, this should have been major news. Instead, the major medical journals rejected her manuscript. Even as she ran new experiments that added evidence to the idea that influenza was infecting people via aerosols, only one niche publisher, The Journal of the Royal Society Interface, was consistently receptive to her work. In the siloed world of academia, aerosols had always been the domain of engineers and physicists, and pathogens purely a medical concern; Marr was one of the rare people who tried to straddle the divide. “I was definitely fringe,” she says.

Thinking it might help her overcome this resistance, she’d try from time to time to figure out where the flawed 5-micron figure had come from. But she always got stuck. The medical textbooks simply stated it as fact, without a citation, as if it were pulled from the air itself. Eventually she got tired of trying, her research and life moved on, and the 5-micron mystery faded into the background. Until, that is, December 2019, when a paper crossed her desk from the lab of Yuguo Li.

An indoor-air researcher at the University of Hong Kong, Li had made a name for himself during the first SARS outbreak, in 2003. His investigation of an outbreak at the Amoy Gardens apartment complex provided the strongest evidence that a coronavirus could be airborne. But in the intervening decades, he’d also struggled to convince the public health community that their risk calculus was off. Eventually, he decided to work out the math. Li’s elegant simulations showed that when a person coughed or sneezed, the heavy droplets were too few and the targets—an open mouth, nostrils, eyes—too small to account for much infection. Li’s team had concluded, therefore, that the public health establishment had it backward and that most colds, flu, and other respiratory illnesses must spread through aerosols instead. 

Their findings, they argued, exposed the fallacy of the 5-micron boundary. And they’d gone a step further, tracing the number back to a decades-old document the CDC had published for hospitals. Marr couldn’t help but feel a surge of excitement. A journal had asked her to review Li’s paper, and she didn’t mask her feelings as she sketched out her reply. On January 22, 2020, she wrote, “This work is hugely important in challenging the existing dogma about how infectious disease is transmitted in droplets and aerosols.”

Even as she composed her note, the implications of Li’s work were far from theoretical. Hours later, Chinese government officials cut off any travel in and out of the city of Wuhan, in a desperate attempt to contain an as-yet-unnamed respiratory disease burning through the 11-million-person megalopolis. As the pandemic shut down country after country, the WHO and the CDC told people to wash their hands, scrub surfaces, and maintain social distance. They didn’t say anything about masks or the dangers of being indoors. 

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