This scientific brief provides an overview of the modes of transmission of SARS-CoV-2, what is known about when infected people transmit the virus, and the implications for infection prevention and control precautions within and outside health facilities. This scientific brief is not a systematic review. Rather, it reflects the consolidation of rapid reviews of publications in peer-reviewed journals and of non-peer-reviewed manuscripts on pre-print servers, undertaken by WHO and partners. Preprint findings should be interpreted with caution in the absence of peer review. This brief is also informed by several discussions via teleconferences with the WHO Health Emergencies Programme ad hoc Experts Advisory Panel for IPC Preparedness, Readiness and Response to COVID-19, the WHO ad hoc COVID-19 IPC Guidance Development Group (COVID-19 IPC GDG), and by review of external experts with relevant technical backgrounds.
The overarching aim of the global Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19(1) is to control COVID-19 by suppressing transmission of the virus and preventing associated illness and death. Current evidence suggests that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is predominantly spread from person-to-person. Understanding how, when and in what types of settings SARS-CoV-2 spreads is critical to develop effective public health and infection prevention and control measures to break chains of transmission. Modes of transmission
This section briefly describes possible modes of transmission for SARS-CoV-2, including contact, droplet, airborne, fomite, fecal-oral, bloodborne, mother-to-child, and animal-to-human transmission. Infection with SARS-CoV-2 primarily causes respiratory illness ranging from mild disease to severe disease and death, and some people infected with the virus never develop symptoms. Contact and droplet transmission
Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 can occur through direct, indirect, or close contact with infected people through infected secretions such as saliva and respiratory secretions or their respiratory droplets, which are expelled when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks or sings.(2-10) Respiratory droplets are >5-10 μm in diameter whereas droplets <5μm in diameter are referred to as droplet nuclei or aerosols.(11) Respiratory droplet transmission can occur when a person is in close contact (within 1 metre) with an infected person who has respiratory symptoms (e.g. coughing or sneezing) or who is talking or singing; in these circumstances, respiratory droplets that include virus can reach the mouth, nose or eyes of a susceptible person and can result in infection. Indirect contact transmission involving contact of a susceptible host with a contaminated object or surface (fomite transmission) may also be possible (see below). Airborne transmission
Airborne transmission is defined as the spread of an infectious agent caused by the dissemination of droplet nuclei (aerosols) that remain infectious when suspended in air over long distances and time.(11) Airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 can occur during medical procedures that generate aerosols (“aerosol generating procedures”).(12) WHO, together with the scientific community, has been actively discussing and evaluating whether SARS-CoV-2 may also spread through aerosols in the absence of aerosol generating procedures, particularly in indoor settings with poor ventilation.
The physics of exhaled air and flow physics have generated hypotheses about possible mechanisms of SARS-CoV-2 transmission through aerosols.(13-16) These theories suggest that 1) a number of respiratory droplets generate microscopic aerosols (<5 µm) by evaporating, and 2) normal breathing and talking results in exhaled aerosols. Thus, a susceptible person could inhale aerosols, and could become infected if the aerosols contain the virus in sufficient quantity to cause infection within the recipient. However, the proportion of exhaled droplet nuclei or of respiratory droplets that evaporate to generate aerosols, and the infectious dose of viable SARS-CoV-2 required to cause infection in another person are not known, but it has been studied for other respiratory viruses.(17)
One experimental study quantified the amount of droplets of various sizes that remain airborne during normal speech. However, the authors acknowledge that this relies on the independent action hypothesis, which has not been validated for humans and SARS-CoV-2.(18) Another recent experimental model found that healthy individuals can produce aerosols through coughing and talking (19), and another model suggested high variability between individuals in terms of particle emission rates during speech, with increased rates correlated with increased amplitude of vocalization.(20) To date, transmission of SARS-CoV-2 by this type of aerosol route has not been demonstrated; much more research is needed given the possible implications of such route of transmission.
Experimental studies have generated aerosols of infectious samples using high-powered jet nebulizers under controlled laboratory conditions. These studies found SARS-CoV-2 virus RNA in air samples within aerosols for up to 3 hours in one study (21) and 16 hours in another, which also found viable replication-competent virus.(22) These findings were from experimentally induced aerosols that do not reflect normal human cough conditions.
Some studies conducted in health care settings where symptomatic COVID-19 patients were cared for, but where aerosol generating procedures were not performed, reported the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in air samples (23-28), while other similar investigations in both health care and non-health care settings found no presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA; no studies have found viable virus in air samples.(29-36) Within samples where SARS-CoV-2 RNA was found, the quantity of RNA detected was in extremely low numbers in large volumes of air and one study that found SARS-CoV-2 RNA in air samples reported inability to identify viable virus. (25) The detection of RNA using reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR)-based assays is not necessarily indicative of replication- and infection-competent (viable) virus that could be transmissible and capable of causing infection.(37)
Recent clinical reports of health workers exposed to COVID-19 index cases, not in the presence of aerosol-generating procedures, found no nosocomial transmission when contact and droplet precautions were appropriately used, including the wearing of medical masks as a component of the personal protective equipment (PPE). (38, 39) These observations suggest that aerosol transmission did not occur in this context. Further studies are needed to determine whether it is possible to detect viable SARS-CoV-2 in air samples from settings where no procedures that generate aerosols are performed and what role aerosols might play in transmission.
Outside of medical facilities, some outbreak reports related to indoor crowded spaces (40) have suggested the possibility of aerosol transmission, combined with droplet transmission, for example, during choir practice (7), in restaurants (41) or in fitness classes.(42) In these events, short-range aerosol transmission, particularly in specific indoor locations, such as crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces over a prolonged period of time with infected persons cannot be ruled out. However, the detailed investigations of these clusters suggest that droplet and fomite transmission could also explain human-to-human transmission within these clusters. Further, the close contact environments of these clusters may have facilitated transmission from a small number of cases to many other people (e.g., superspreading event), especially if hand hygiene was not performed and masks were not used when physical distancing was not maintained.(43) Fomite transmission
Respiratory secretions or droplets expelled by infected individuals can contaminate surfaces and objects, creating fomites (contaminated surfaces). Viable SARS-CoV-2 virus and/or RNA detected by RT-PCR can be found on those surfaces for periods ranging from hours to days, depending on the ambient environment (including temperature and humidity) and the type of surface, in particular at high concentration in health care facilities where COVID-19 patients were being treated.(21, 23, 24, 26, 28, 31-33, 36, 44, 45) Therefore, transmission may also occur indirectly through touching surfaces in the immediate environment or objects contaminated with virus from an infected person (e.g. stethoscope or thermometer), followed by touching the mouth, nose, or eyes.
Despite consistent evidence as to SARS-CoV-2 contamination of surfaces and the survival of the virus on certain surfaces, there are no specific reports which have directly demonstrated fomite transmission. People who come into contact with potentially infectious surfaces often also have close contact with the infectious person, making the distinction between respiratory droplet and fomite transmission difficult to discern. However, fomite transmission is considered a likely mode of transmission for SARS-CoV-2, given consistent findings about environmental contamination in the vicinity of infected cases and the fact that other coronaviruses and respiratory viruses can transmit this way. Other modes of transmission
SARS-CoV-2 RNA has also been detected in other biological samples, including the urine and feces of some patients.(46-50)One study found viable SARS-CoV-2 in the urine of one patient.(51)Three studies have cultured SARS-CoV-2 from stool specimens. (48, 52, 53) To date, however, there have been no published reports of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through feces or urine.
Some studies have reported detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA, in either plasma or serum, and the virus can replicate in blood cells. However, the role of bloodborne transmission remains uncertain; and low viral titers in plasma and serum suggest that the risk of transmission through this route may be low.(48, 54) Currently, there is no evidence for intrauterine transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from infected pregnant women to their fetuses, although data remain limited. WHO has recently published a scientific brief on breastfeeding and COVID-19.(55) This brief explains that viral RNA fragments have been found by RT-PCR testing in a few breast milk samples of mothers infected with SARS-CoV-2, but studies investigating whether the virus could be isolated, have found no viable virus. Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from mother to child would necessitate replicative and infectious virus in breast milk being able to reach target sites in the infant and also to overcome infant defense systems. WHO recommends that mothers with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should be encouraged to initiate or continue to breastfeed.(55)
Evidence to date shows that SARS-CoV-2 is most closely related to known betacoronaviruses in bats; the role of an intermediate host in facilitating transmission in the earliest known human cases remains unclear.(56, 57) In addition to investigations on the possible intermediate host(s) of SARS-CoV-2, there are also a number of studies underway to better understand susceptibility of SARS-CoV-2 in different animal species. Current evidence suggests that humans infected with SARS-CoV-2 can infect other mammals, including dogs(58), cats(59), and farmed mink.(60) However, it remains unclear if these infected mammals pose a significant risk for transmission to humans.