Tracking airborne viruses
In the wake of headline-making outbreaks such as SARS, West Nile virus, and pandemic influenza, scientists have ramped up efforts to better understand how infectious agents behave and spread among us. But, remarkably, little is known as to how well many infectious diseases spread through the air.
A University of Minnesota team is working to answer this question through lab simulations of six different live viruses that resemble those that cause influenza, SARS, and other diseases. The interdisciplinary team—which represents public health, veterinary medicine, and mechanical engineering—is studying how far and fast viruses travel in different airborne particles, from liquids that are drop-sized to much smaller aerosol-sized particles.
Next up in the four-year National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health-funded study is to test the methods in two settings where controlling infections is critical and difficult: a swine barn and a health care clinic. Beyond that, the team hopes the study will lead to further research and recommendations on how to control the spread of disease.
“The idea is if there were an outbreak, we would know how to measure the size of airborne particles that contain the virus and be able to determine how far that virus might spread by air, and how deep into the lungs it could travel,” explains SPH professor Peter Raynor. “Knowing those things could go a long way to prevent the disease from spreading.”