Coronavirus in the air?

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked voluble discussions in nearly every area of our lives. In the medical field, one of the most heated discussions focuses on the air we breathe: how does COVID-19 spread through the air and what is the role of airborne transmission in terms of disease contagion? The world of science as well as music professionals, enthusiasts and avid concert-goers are all eager to find answers.

Published: 2.9.2021

If you only follow coronavirus discourse, you might get the impression that the spread of pathogens by air is completely new and unique only to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes a COVID-19 infection. This is not the case, however. For decades, we have known that, for example, tuberculosis and influenza are transmitted by air. Why, then, has COVID-19 become the focus of research concerning the spread of airborne pathogens?

First of all, COVID-19 has brought about the most difficult pandemic to manage for decades. The prolonged and rapid spread of the pandemic is largely explained by the fact that the pathogens can be transmitted from one person to the next by air. Airborne transmission is one factor that can be affected through societal decision making, for example, with the use of restrictions and mask recommendations. Other significant reasons for the rapid increase in coronavirus cases include disease transmission during the asymptomatic phase, the sufficient but not excessive mortality rate from a viral standpoint and extensive human mobility.

The research has also been accelerated by technological advances. For the first time, we now have the possibility to study the air and pathogenic agents travelling by air more closely. The prime era for tuberculosis was during the early 1900s and the previous influenza pandemic was more than ten years ago. Since those times, scientific research technology has taken great leaps forward. We no longer need to rely on retrospective research methods to assess transmission routes, but rather, we can gather and study the air we breathe and the pathogens it contains.


Multidisciplinary collaboration

Currently, we know that many pathogenic agents that cause respiratory tract infections can be spread by air from one person to another. Furthermore, it appears that some people spread the disease more easily to those around them while the greater majority do not necessarily even pass the disease on to those they live with.  We are not able to explain why this is – yet! Our research group is striving to explain the phenomenon through methods dealing with aerosol physics, computational modelling and medical science. Our goal is to be able to identify those persons who will easily spread airborne diseases to those around them. Very few of us are experts in all the aforementioned fields and that is why we are attacking the problem with a multidisciplinary approach and taking advantage of the expertise of researchers with different backgrounds of experience.

The research was motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but its results will also be of benefit in understanding and restricting the spread of regular seasonal flus, influenza epidemics and other contagious diseases.  We also hope that our results will help to safeguard musical endeavours during any future pandemics. This is crucial for both the Finnish music industry and the well-being of the nation’s citizens.

Enni Sanmark
M.D., Ph.D., Specialising physician in ear, nose and throat diseases
Helsinki University Hospital


Picture of Enni Sanmark.


I am Enni Sanmark, a physician who graduated from the University of Helsinki in 2017 and the mother of a little girl. In spring 2020, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was on maternity leave and had just completed my doctoral thesis in ear, nose and throat diseases.  A good friend of mine decided at that time to begin their dissertation research on the spread of COVID-19 and its impacts on the well-being of health care personnel. We began collaboratively to devise a research plan and, as a result of many twists and turns and lucky coincidences, my research topic narrowed to focus on the airborne spread of pathogens and related research from a multidisciplinary perspective. One of the key creeds to come out of this project can be summed up as follows: ‘If you are presented with an interesting idea, have the courage to grasp it and see where it leads.’




Image: Shutterstock

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