SARS-CoV-2 and the role of airborne transmission: a systematic review
Heneghan CJ., Spencer EA., Brassey J., Plüddemann A., Onakpoya IJ., Oke JL., Evans DH., Conly JM., Jefferson T.
Background: Airborne transmission is the spread of an infectious agent caused by the dissemination of droplet nuclei (aerosols) that remain infectious when suspended in the air. We carried out a systematic review to identify, appraise and summarise the evidence from studies of the role of airborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Methods: We searched LitCovid, MedRxiv, Google Scholar and the WHO Covid-19 database from 1 February 2020 to 30 May 2022 and included studies on airborne transmission. Data were dual extracted, and we assessed quality using a modified QUADAS 2 risk of bias tool. Results: We included 128 primary studies and 29 reviews on airborne SARS-CoV-2. Of the 128 primary studies, 105 (82%) reported data on RT-PCR from air samples, 28 (22%) report cycle threshold values and 36 (28%) copies per sample volume. All primary studies were observational. The research often lacked standard methods, standard sampling sizes and reporting items. We found 69 descriptions of different air samplers deployed. Of the 80 in-hospital studies that reported binary RT-PCR tests, 362/3079 air samples from 75 studies conducted in hospital ward environments were positive (median 8%, IQR=0 to 23%); 23 studies reported 74/703 RT-PCR positive air samples in the ICU setting (median 17%, IQR=0% to 38%) Thirty-eight studies reported potential air transmission in the outdoors or in the community. Twenty-six studies attempted viral culture, none of which definitively demonstrated that replication-competent SARS-CoV-2 could be recovered in the air. Conclusion: SARS-CoV-2 RNA is detectable intermittently in the air in various settings. Standardized guidelines for conducting and reporting research on airborne transmission are needed. The lack of recoverable viral culture of SARS-CoV-2 from air samples prevents firm conclusions about the definitive role of airborne transmission in SARS-CoV-2.