In response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, governments have implemented extreme “lockdown” measures with devastating economic consequences, the costs of which must be measured not only in dollars but also in terms of worsened health and lost or shortened lives. The mainstream media have fulfilled the function of manufacturing consent for these extreme policies by reporting about the virus in an alarmist manner that has caused mass fear and panic among the public.
A key pillar of the mainstream narrative that has served to cause mass fear and submission to harmful government diktats is that the spread of the coronavirus is largely driven via the airborne route by people who don’t know they are infected because they have no symptoms. The New York Times, America’s “newspaper of record”, has been pushing this narrative for months in a series of articles by Apoorva Mandavilli, who last year was awarded the Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting.
A recurring theme in Mandavilli’s articles is that the World Health Organization (WHO) has been consistently behind the science when it comes to knowledge about the transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The WHO, as the Times tells it, has been wrong to say that asymptomatic transmission appears to be rare and has been stubbornly resistant in acknowledging the airborne transmissibility of the virus in the community setting.
A critical examination of the Times’ reporting, however, reveals how it lies to the public by systematically mischaracterizing the science and the WHO’s positions on asymptomatic and airborne transmission.
For example, on July 16, in an article titled “Mask Rules Expand Across U.S. as Clashes Over the Mandates Intensify”, the Times reported that “Public health officials increasingly see masks as a powerful weapon against the virus, particularly after the World Health Organization acknowledged that the virus can be airborne, with tiny respiratory droplets able to linger in the air for hours.”
That statement is false. In fact, the WHO rightly maintains that airborne transmission, while a theoretical possibility, remains unproven. The linked source for that claim is another Times article, which was written by Mandavilli. However, the fact that the Times falsely characterizes the WHO’s position as well as the science can be seen by examining her own primary sources.
The Times has built its deceptive narrative over a matter of months in a litany of articles by Mandavilli, with each successive article building on those that came before, and so to demonstrate how the more recent Times articles lie to readers, it is necessary to also examine the earlier reporting.
So, to begin, let’s go back to March 17, on which day the Times published an article by Mandavilli with a headline asking, “How Long Will Coronavirus Live on Surfaces or in the Air Around You?”
How the Times Falsely Reported Airborne Transmission as a Proven Fact
That article reported as fact that SARS-CoV-2 is airborne transmissible, remaining viable in the air for up to thirty minutes, contrary to the position of the WHO that the virus is not airborne.
In fact, however, the studies cited to support that contention did not contradict the WHO’s position that airborne transmission remained unproven.
Having reported the airborne route as a proven mode of transmission with its headline, the Times article correctly noted that experts believed that the risk of transmission through contact with infected surfaces, known as fomite transmission, is “low”, but that they also “offered additional warnings about how long the virus survives in air”.
While many among the general public might assume that any transmission of the virus by droplets that travel through the air constitutes “airborne” transmission, it is actually a technical term that distinguishes between respiratory droplets with different characteristics.
The predominant mode of transmission is recognized to be larger respiratory droplets generated by coughing, sneezing, or talking at higher volumes. These droplets fall rapidly to the ground within a short distance, which is the basis for the “social distancing” recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to maintain a distance of at least six feet from others.
Airborne transmission, by contrast, refers to smaller droplets, generally under five micrometers in diameter, that are known as aerosols and can linger in the air longer and travel farther.
Under more natural conditions, aerosols “can stay suspended for about a half-hour, researchers said, before drifting down and settling on surfaces where it can linger for hours.”
The study’s finding that “the virus can survive and stay infectious in aerosols”, the Times asserted, “is inconsistent with the World Health Organization’s position that the virus is not transported by air.”
“For weeks experts have maintained that the virus is not airborne”, the Times adds. “But in fact, it can travel through the air and stay suspended for that period of about a half-hour.”
Furthermore, “procedures health care workers use to care for infected patients are likely to generate aerosols.”
Health care workers might also resuspend droplets into the air when doffing their protective gear, thereby exposing themselves and others to the virus. “A study that is being reviewed by experts”, the Times stated, “bears out this fear.”
A third study, published in the journal of the American Medical Association, JAMA, “also indicates that the virus is transported by air. That study, based in Singapore, found the virus on a vent in the hospital room of an infected patient, where it could only have reached via the air.”
The article paraphrases Dr. Linsey Marr, “an expert in the transmission of viruses by aerosol at Virginia Tech”, saying that “the World Health Organization had so far referred to the virus as not airborne” but cautioning that health care workers should wear protective gear including respirator masks on the assumption that it is.
Importantly, the Times included the caveat that “The virus does not linger in the air at high enough levels to be a risk to most people who are not physically near an infected person.”
In other words, even if we assume that SARS-CoV-2 is spread via the airborne route by people who have no symptoms of infection, prolonged close contact with others would still be required for transmission to occur.
Relevant to the ongoing debate about executive mask-wearing orders, the article also quoted Dr. Marr saying that “surgical masks are probably insufficient” to protect health care workers from airborne transmission—as opposed to serving as a physical barrier to transmission via larger respiratory droplets.
In another important caveat, the Times also relayed Dr. Marr’s paraphrased reassurance that the new findings “should not cause the general public to panic, however, because the virus disperses quickly in the air.” While it “sounds scary”, the Times quoted Dr. Marr as saying, “unless you’re close to someone, the amount you’ve been exposed to is very low.” The Times reiterated that, “for anyone farther than a few feet away, there is too little of the virus in the air to be any danger.”
Further into the article, the Times also quoted Dr. Vincent Munster, a virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) who led the New England Journal of Medicine study, acknowledging that they generated aerosols using “bizarre experiments done under very ideal controllable experimental conditions.”
But the only significance the Times attributes to the experimental nature of the study, in which researchers “used a rotating drum to suspend the aerosols, and provided temperature and humidity levels that closely mimic hospital conditions”, was that it left open the question of how long viable virus may remain suspended in the air once aerosolized.
It paraphrases Dr. Munster saying that “the virus survived and stayed infectious for up to three hours, but its ability to infect drops sharply over this time”, with aerosols perhaps staying aloft “only for about 10 minutes” in real-world settings. Then it paraphrases Dr. Marr disagreeing, saying that infectious aerosols “could stay in the air for three times longer” and that “the experimental setup might be less comfortable for the virus than a real-life setting.”
Thus, the overall message the Times delivers to its readers is that airborne transmission had been proven, and that the only question remaining was how long aerosols containing viable virus remain in the air after being generated by infected individuals. Furthermore, this important new finding, readers are told, contradicts the WHO’s position that SARS-CoV-2 is not airborne transmissible.
Dissecting the Times’ Claims about Airborne Transmission
The first thing to note about this New York Times article is how the headline presupposes that the airborne route had been proven as mode of transmission for SARS-CoV-2. The rest of the article reinforces the claim that studies had contradicted the position of the WHO that the virus is not airborne. The question, the way the Times frames it, is how long viable virus can remain airborne, not whether it remains infectious in smaller aerosol droplets.
That characterization of the science, however, is false.
The New England Journal of Medicine study, titled “Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1”, did detect viable virus in aerosols. As the Times points out, researchers did so experimentally, using aerosol-generating machinery. However, while the Times characterizes the significance of this as simply leaving open the question of how long infectious virus might remain suspended in the air, its true significance is that it leaves open the question of whether infectious virus can be found in aerosols generated by individuals by coughing, sneezing, talking, or breathing.
In an earlier scientific brief, published on March 29, less than two weeks after the Times reported airborne transmission as a proven fact, the WHO pointed out that some studies had provided “initial evidence on whether the COVID-19 virus can be detected in the air”, and “some news outlets” had consequently “suggested that there has been airborne transmission.” However, the WHO noted, these initial findings “need to be interpreted carefully.”
In the New England Journal of Medicine study, specifically, aerosols were experimentally generated using “a high-powered machine that does not reflect normal human cough conditions.” It was, in other words, “an experimentally induced aerosol-generating procedure.”
The authors of the study themselves acknowledged that they did not prove that SARS-CoV-2 is airborne transmissible. Their findings, the researchers noted, rather indicated “that aerosol and fomite transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is plausible” (emphasis added).
As for the potential for airborne transmission in the health care setting due to aerosol-generating medical procedures, the WHO had already been warning about this risk prior to that study’s publication.
As the WHO observed in a report published on February 28, “Airborne spread has not been reported for COVID-19 and it is not believed to be a major driver of transmission based on available evidence; however, it can be envisaged if certain aerosol-generating procedures are conducted in health care facilities.”
The New England Journal of Medicine study, contrary to the Times’ characterization, did not contradict but reinforced the stated position of the WHO, which was not that airborne transmission had been definitively ruled out, but that it remained a theoretical risk and an important topic for further research.
The second study cited by the Times to support its narrative is titled “Aerodynamic Characteristics and RNA Concentrations of SARS-CoV-2 Aerosol in Wuhan Hospitals during COVID-19 Outbreak”. Published on the preprint server bioRxiv (“bio archive”) on March 10, this was the study the Times said had borne out the fear that aerosols can be resuspended by health care workers doffing protective gear, resulting in workers exposing themselves to infectious virus.
However, the study did not confirm that this can happen, but merely hypothesized that it might occur. Its authors detected viral RNA in air samples in two hospitals in Wuhan but did not determine whether it remained viable. In contrast to the Times’ characterization, the study authors did not claim that their findings demonstrated that SARS-CoV-2 is airborne transmissible; they rather characterized their findings as supporting “a hypothesis that virus-laden aerosol deposition may play a role in surface contamination and subsequent contact by susceptible people resulting in human infection.”
The third study cited by the Times is titled “Air, Surface Environmental, and Personal Protective Equipment Contamination by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) From a Symptomatic Patient”. Published in JAMA on March 4, this is the study the Times says “also indicates that the virus is transported by air.”
However, what the Times fails to relay to its readers is the fact that the detection of viral RNA is not necessarily indicative of the presence of infectious virus. As the study authors explicitly stated, one of the limitations of their study was that “viral culture was not done to demonstrate viability.”
As the WHO’s scientific brief of March 29 rightly observes, “It is important to note that the detection of RNA in environmental samples based on PCR-based assays is not indicative of viable virus that could be transmissible.” To establish the airborne transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2, the WHO noted, further research was required to determine whether it is possible to detect viable virus in air samples in the absence of aerosol-generating procedures.
In an interim guidance document published on June 29, the WHO noted that airborne transmission “is possible under circumstances and settings where aerosol generating procedures (AGPs) are performed”. It added that, “Although the COVID-19 virus has been detected by RT-PCR in air samples gathered in the rooms of COVID-19 patients who did not undergo AGPs, none of these studies have been able to culture the virus from these air particles, a step that is critical to determining the infectiousness of viral particles.” (Emphasis added.)
The WHO’s updated scientific brief of July 9 similarly states (emphasis added),
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, 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. Within samples where SARS-CoV-2 RNA was found, that 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. 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.
The WHO once again reiterated that “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.”
In sum, the New York Times, in its March 17 article titled “How long Will Coronavirus Live on Surfaces or in the Air Around You?”, characterized the science as having firmly established that SARS-CoV-2 is airborne transmissible, albeit with questions remaining about the duration that viable virus might remain in the air after aerosols are generated by infected individuals in the community setting. To bolster that characterization, the Times portrayed the WHO as having expressed a position that was contradicted by the scientific studies being reported.
In truth, however, as is evident from examining the Times’ own cited sources, airborne transmission remained theoretical, and the studies cited did not contradict the WHO’s position for reasons that the WHO has itself since explained. Namely, the detection of viable virus in air samples in experimental studies using machines to generate aerosols does not demonstrate airborne transmissibility of SARS-CoV-2 in the community setting, and the detection of viral RNA using RT-PCR assays is not necessarily indicative of the presence of infectious virus.
In forthcoming installments of this series, we’ll further examine the propagandistic nature of the New York Times’ reporting and how it has systematically deceived the public for months about the what science tells us about how transmission of SARS-CoV-2 occurs in the community setting.
 Sara Mervosh, Manny Fernandez, and Campbell Robertson, “Mask Rules Expand Across U.S. as Clashes Over the Mandates Intensify”, New York Times, July 16, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/16/us/coronavirus-masks.html.
 Apoorva Mandavilli, “How Long Will Coronavirus Live on Surfaces or in the Air Around You?”, New York Times, March 17, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/health/coronavirus-surfaces-aerosols.html.
 World Health Organization, “Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: implications for infection prevention precautions”, WHO.int, July 9, 2020, https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/modes-of-transmission-of-virus-causing-covid-19-implications-for-ipc-precaution-recommendations.
 World Health Organization, “Modes of transmission of virus causing COVID-19: implications for IPC precaution recommendations”, WHO.int, March 29, 2020, https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/331616.
 World Health Organization, “Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), WHO.int, February 28, 2020, https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/report-of-the-who-china-joint-mission-on-coronavirus-disease-2019-(covid-19).
 Yuan Liu et al., “Aerodynamic Characteristics and RNA Concentration of SARS-CoV-2 Aerosol in Wuhan Hospitals during COVID-19 Outbreak”, bioRxiv, March 10, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.03.08.982637.
 Sean Wei Xiang Ong et al., “Air, Surface Environmental, and Personal Protective Equipment Contamination by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) From a Symptomatic Patient”, JAMA, March 4, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2020.3227.
 WHO, “Modes of transmission of virus causing COVID-19”.
 World Health Organization, “Infection prevention and control during health care when coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is suspected or confirmed”, WHO.int, June 29, 2020, https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/WHO-2019-nCoV-IPC-2020.4.
 WHO, “Transmission of SARs-CoV-2”.