The new coronavirus variants are becoming more airborne compared to earlier variants, a new study suggests.

The University of Maryland-led study — which was published in the medical journal Clinical Infectious Diseases — found that those who were infected with more recent strains of the coronavirus exhaled 43 to 100 times more of the virus into the air.

  • This suggests that COVID-19 “is evolving to become more airborne,” the study said.
  • And the study found that cloth and surgical masks reduce the amount of airborne virus particles by about 50%.
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Dr. Don Milton, professor of environmental health at UMD’s School of Public Health, said the study shows airborne transmission is becoming more common.

  • “Our latest study provides further evidence of the importance of airborne transmission,” Milton said in a statement. “We know that the delta variant circulating now is even more contagious than the alpha variant.”

The researchers said better ventilation and tight-fitting masks — in addition to vaccination — will be needed to stop any variants that are better at traveling through the air.

  • “We already knew that virus in saliva and nasal swabs was increased in Alpha variant infections. Virus from the nose and mouth might be transmitted by sprays of large droplets up close to an infected person. But, our study shows that the virus in exhaled aerosols is increasing even more,” said doctoral student Jianyu Lai, one of the lead authors.
Why the new A.23.1 variant is so troubling

It’s no question that COVID-19 is an airborne virus because it can spread through the air. In fact, in July 2020, a group of experts and scientists said in a letter that COVID-19 is an airborne virus. At the time, it wasn't well-established that the virus could pass through the air. Instead, it was suggested the coronavirus could only pass-through “coughing, sneezing or speech,” according to The Guardian.

But experts suggested that the virus could hang in the air for a short time, infecting someone who might not be coughing, sneezing or talking to someone who was infected.

In September 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people can be infected with COVID-19 through tiny droplets and particles that hang in the air for minutes or hours.

  • “Some infections can be spread by exposure to virus in small droplets and particles that can linger in the air for minutes to hours. These viruses may be able to infect people who are further than 6 feet away from the person who is infected or after that person has left the space.”
  • “This kind of spread is referred to as airborne transmission and is an important way that infections like tuberculosis, measles, and chicken pox are spread.”