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Understanding the extent of aerosol-based transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is important for tailoring interventions for control of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Multiple studies have reported the detection of SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid in air samples, but only one study has successfully recovered viable virus, although it is limited by its small sample size.
We aimed to determine the extent of shedding of viable SARS-CoV-2 in respiratory aerosols from COVID-19 patients.
In this observational air sampling study, air samples from airborne-infection isolation rooms (AIIRs) and a community isolation facility (CIF) housing COVID-19 patients were collected using a water vapor condensation method into liquid collection media. Samples were tested for presence of SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acid using quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR), and qRT-PCR-positive samples were tested for viability using viral culture.
Samples from 6 (50%) of the 12 sampling cycles in hospital rooms were positive for SARS-CoV-2 RNA, including aerosols ranging from <1 µm to >4 µm in diameter. Of 9 samples from the CIF, 1 was positive via qRT-PCR. Viral RNA concentrations ranged from 179 to 2,738 ORF1ab gene copies per cubic meter of air. Virus cultures were negative after 4 blind passages.
Although SARS-CoV-2 is readily captured in aerosols, virus culture remains challenging despite optimized sampling methodologies to preserve virus viability. Further studies on aerosol-based transmission and control of SARS-CoV-2 are needed.
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