University of Chicago Study monitors the spread of COVID-19 through air

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US Department of Health and Human Services, Government of U.S.A., has revised its guidance for avoiding COVID-19. The recent update says that the spread of the virus is not apparently the only way of contracting the infection from touching surfaces. In fact, the greater risk of contracting the Corona Virus is through spending time with people.

University of Chicago researchers are testing air in the hospital rooms of patients with COVID-19 to understand where the “hotspots” are around infected people. Photo Credit, Shutterstock.

Virus Through Air?

It is known that few virus particles might as well be air borne, what is not known is the fact that how far and wide these virus could travel. In order to trash out this critical knowledge, a new research is already in place in the form of monitoring the air in the hospital rooms of patients at the University of Chicago Medicine, which would eventually help scientists to figure out how airborne virus particles travel around infected people.

Professor Jayant Pinto

Professor Jayant Pinto, ENT Specialist and part of the investigating team which is involved in this study said: This is such a big question for the hospital, but also in people’s homes and workplaces and stores. For the most part, this virus causes its chaos starting from the airway. We really want to understand how it gets there, who is most likely to be at risk, how to best protect health care workers, and how the disease moves through the airway.”


The team had joined hands with Associate Professor Savas Tay of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and had established compact monitors in order to collect air samples in the rooms of patients at the hospital. Those who took part in the research ranged from those patients who were in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) to those patients who were tested COVID-19 negative as well.

Meanwhile, the monitor ranged in placement from close to patient’s head, to the doorway, to an estimated ten feet away. After collecting the material in the air, Tay’s laboratory would then get into the act of measuring the amount of virus in the samples to find how far the virus had traveled from the patient.

Tay said: “Within any given room, we want to know where the hotspots are where patients are breathing out virus. We hope to learn which patients are very infectious and spewing out lots of virus; how that viral load changes in air over time with treatment; and which treatments increase or decrease the viral load in the air.”

Alternatives to Ventilators

For instance, the University of Chicago Medicine were looking for alternatives to ventilators in their COVID-19 treatment plan by blowing a large amount of humidified air into the lungs through the nose via a technique, high-flow nasal cannula oxygenation. What is more, the treatment has yielded remarkable success so far, nevertheless it presented additional risk as it is likely to increase the amount of the virus particles in the air (to protect themselves from COVID-19, the health workers are required to have proper PPE, negative pressure patient rooms and anter-rooms, where they can change in and out of their safety gear). Apparently, Tay and Pinto want to quantify that amount compared with other treatments.

Air Infection

Furthermore, the scientists hope in the next step of the research to examine how infectious that air actually is. At present, the research merely detects the presence of the the genetic material of the virus. As the corona viruses are relatively fragile, by the time it circulates at distance, it may or may not still be able to cause infection.

Pinto said: “From a health care perspective, we would really like to know how infectious a person is, and how it changes as they undergo treatment—how is it different on day 1 versus day 5 or 10? That can help set standards for PPE for health care workers.

Associate Professor Savas Tay of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering

The duo would further track the genes of the virus specifically in Chicago, small genetic differences could help track the origin of the virus and the same is spreading across the city. The initial work conducted by Prof Tao Pan with the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology revealed this might as well be possible using this approach.

The team is continuing to collect samples and running the analysis. The positive news is that the preliminary results are looking good. So far, they have proven that the technique might as well detect and quantify viral RNA.

Noting that the effort involves working with colleagues and front-line providers in the ICU from the departments of medicine and anesthesia/critical care, Pinto concluded: “I am very glad we could partner with Savas’s lab on this. This is exactly what we want to be doing: collaborating across disciplines to solve big problems.”