“To the general public, ‘airborne’ can evoke fear and panic. People think of the movie ‘Contagion,’ which is like ‘Jaws’ but for infectious diseases.”
By Ben Guarino, Chris Mooney and Tim Elfrink
Sep 21 2020
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday removed language from its website that said the novel coronavirus spreads via airborne transmission, the latest example of the agency backtracking from its own guidance.
The agency said the guidance, which went up on Friday and largely went without notice until late Sunday, should not have been posted because it was an early draft.
“Unfortunately an early draft of a revision went up without any technical review,” said Jay Butler, the CDC’s deputy director for infectious diseases. “We are returning to the earlier version and revisiting that process. It was a failure of process at CDC.”
Evidence that the virus floats in the air has mounted for months, with an increasingly loud chorus of aerosol biologists pointing to superspreading events in choirs, buses, bars and other poorly ventilated spaces. They cheered when the CDC seemed to join them in agreeing the coronavirus can be airborne.
Experts who reviewed the CDC’s Friday post had said the language change had the power to shift policy and drive a major rethinking on the need to better ventilate indoor air.
Jose-Luis Jimenez, a chemistry professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies how aerosols spread the virus, told The Washington Post before the CDC reversed its guidance “this is a good thing, if we can reduce transmission because more people understand how it is spreading and know what to do to stop it.”
Although CDC officials maintained Friday’s post was a mistake, Democratic lawmakers were incredulous. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) tweeted Monday afternoon that he would investigate why the language to airborne transmission had been scrubbed.
The change on Monday was the third time the CDC posted coronavirus guidance or recommendations only to reverse its stance. In the spring, it revised information about contact transmission within days of publishing it. The White House coronavirus task force had directed the agency to change those guidelines in August, stating that asymptomatic people did not need to be tested. Last week the CDC changed its position again, encouraging anyone at risk to get tested.
The agency had posted information Friday stating that the virus can be transmitted over a distance beyond six feet, suggesting that indoor ventilation is key to protecting against a virus that has now killed nearly 200,000 Americans. Where the agency previously warned that the virus mostly spreads through large drops encountered at close range, on Friday, it said “small particles, such as those in aerosols,” were an important vector.
“Airborne transmission is plausible and, I would say, possible,” Butler said. But he said data do not suggest the coronavirus is spread primarily through the air, unlike diseases such as tuberculosis.
Butler said the Friday guidance, released in error, overstated the agency’s stance on airborne spread. “If I did not know any better, I would think that we were saying that airborne transmission is very important, if not the main mode of transmission,” he said. “That does not reflect our current state of knowledge.”
If airborne spread was the main route, Butler said he would have expected the disease to travel even faster around the globe than it did. “The epidemiology seems pretty clear that the highest risk is in household contexts,” he said, meaning through the proximity of one family member or roommate to another.
Sudden flip-flops on public guidance is antithetical to the CDC’s own rules for crisis management. After disastrous communications during the 2001 anthrax attacks — when white powder in envelopes sparked widespread panic — the agency created a 450-page manual outlining how U.S. leaders should talk to the public during crises.
Protecting vulnerable people from a virus that is infecting millions depends on U.S. leaders issuing clear public-health instructions and the public’s trust to follow directions that could save their lives.
It was also the latest disorienting turn in a scientific debate with enormous public consequences for how we return to schools and offices. The debate is over whether the extreme infectiousness and tenacity of the coronavirus is due to its ability to spread well over six feet, especially indoors, in small particles that result from talking, shouting, singing or just breathing.
Many experts outside the agency say the pathogen can waft over considerably longer distances to be inhaled into our respiratory systems, especially if we are indoors and air flow conditions are stagnant.
“Poor ventilation can play a major role in super spreading events when individuals unaware that they are shedding virus, and are highly contagious, spend a long time in a crowded indoor environment where most people are not wearing masks,” said Shelly Miller, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder who focuses on the quality of indoor air.
“There was a lot of confusion early on because WHO said adamantly that the disease is not airborne. There’s also, somehow, a higher bar of proof required for a disease to be officially considered to transmit through the air,” added Virginia Tech civil and environmental engineering professor Linsey Marr. “That’s due to historical bias, I think, and the fact that you can’t see aerosols.”
Jimenez said a default assumption exists among public health experts that airborne transmission is very rare in the world of pathogens. For other diseases, it required decades of research to overcome that assumption, he said, as was the case with measles and tuberculosis, both of which were originally assumed to be passed by large droplets. Experiments with sneezing guinea pigs, conducted by Richard L. Riley and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University in the 1950s, ultimately helped persuade the medical field that tuberculosis was airborne.
In July, Marr, Miller, Jimenez and more than 200 of their colleagues sent a letter about airborne covid-19 transmission to the World Health Organization, which responded by acknowledging the “emerging evidence” the pathogen can spread through the air.
“To the general public, ‘airborne’ can evoke fear and panic. People think of the movie ‘Contagion,’ which is like ‘Jaws’ but for infectious diseases,” Marr said at a virtual workshop on airborne transmission held in late August and sponsored by the National Academies of Sciences. She cited a report by public-health experts in Hong Kong who concluded that a fear of “panic and political blame” caused a reluctance among officials to label the first SARS virus as airborne.
But she emphasized there are important differences in the environments that might alter how an airborne virus might spread — indoors vs. outdoors, a clinical setting vs. a non-clinical setting.
She described a theoretical exhalation of coronavirus akin to the plume of smoke from a cigarette. “Once you get beyond that plume, anything that small enough to stay floating in the air can travel, you know, quite far all the way across the room,” Marr told The Post. “Even if you’re in a room where the air seems still, there’s actually movement of the air that can carry things all the way across the room.”
Unlike ballistic droplets from a cough, which arc like cannonballs launched from a nose or mouth until they splash against a person or drop to the ground, aerosols float on the wind and can be unwittingly inhaled.
Scientists are now trying frantically to understand how some of the biggest virus superspreading events can be explained by not only the assumption of airborne viral particles, but also the conditions of particular indoor spaces, including their ventilation systems and how much they allow for the circulation of fresh air.
In one of the most startling scientific offerings, Bjorn Birnir, a mathematician at the University of California at Santa Barbara, studies three well-documented cases in which the coronavirus spread rapidly and widely in an enclosed or indoor environment — a restaurant in Guangzhou, China; a bus traveling in China’s Zhejiang province; and a call center in Seoul.
CIA’s new tech recruiting pitch: More patents, more profits
The newest federal lab gives the CIA and its officers the unprecedented ability to make money off inventions that come from within the agency.
Patrick Howell O’Neill archive page September 21, 2020
America’s most famous spy agency has a major competitor it can’t quite seem to beat: Silicon Valley.
The CIA has long been a place cutting-edge technology is researched, developed, and realized—and it wants to lead in fields like artificial intelligence and biotechnology. However, recruiting and retaining the talent capable of building these tools is a challenge on many levels, especially since a spy agency can’t match Silicon Valley salaries, reputations, and patents.
The agency’s solution is CIA Labs, a new skunkworks that will attempt to recruit and retain technical talent by offering incentives to those who work there. Under the new initiative, announced today, CIA officers will be able for the first time to publicly file patents on the intellectual property they work on—and collect a portion of the the profits. The agency will take the rest of the balance. Dawn Meyerriecks, who heads the agency’s science and technology directorate, says the best-case scenario is that the agency’s research and development could end up paying for itself.
“This is helping maintain US dominance, particularly from a technological perspective,” says Meyerriecks. “That’s really critical for national and economic security. It also democratizes the technology by making it available to the planet in a way that allows the level of the water to rise for all.”
It’s not the first time the agency has worked to commercialize technology it helped develop. The agency already sponsors its own venture capital firm, In-Q-Tel, which has backed companies including Keyhole, the core technology that now makes up Google Earth. Meyerriecks says the CIA maintains relationships with a variety of other venture capitalists with the same goal.
It also works closely with other arms of government like the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity to do basic and expensive research where the private sector and academia often don’t deliver the goods. What CIA Labs aims to do differently is focus inward to attract—and then keep—more scientists and engineers, and become a research partner to academia and industry.
Officers who develop new technologies at CIA Labs will be allowed to patent, license, and profit from their work, making 15% of the total income from the new invention with a cap of $150,000 per year. That could double most agency salaries and make the work more competitive with Silicon Valley.