The Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi at Al Marya Island. Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Abu Dhabi: Researchers in Abu Dhabi are studying the airborne behaviour of the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, the Abu Dhabi Media Office announced.

A model is being developed by researchers at Khalifa University and Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi (CCAD) to better understand how the virus — Sars-CoV-2 — travels through the air and how long it can stay airborne, with the aims of ensuring better safety at hospitals and lower transmission rates. The study should also help ensure the effectiveness of face masks and PPE in preventing COVID-19 transmission.

Airborne spread or aerosolisation means that tiny droplets containing the SARS CoV-2 virus remain airborne for a long time, and travel significantly farther than the two-metre separation recommended for social distancing. As some studies have suggested, the spread of COVID-19 by aerosols is both real and dangerous.

Model creation

To create their model, the researchers spray a colloid made of silicon nanoparticles to simulate a patient’s cough and aerosol generation, making droplets of various sizes containing the nanoparticles. These nanoparticles glow red under the ultraviolet light, allowing the researchers to see how the particles spread. The team will also be testing their model in a hospital environment with mannequins at CCAD.

“Our researchers have been persistently engaged in scientific research that brings solutions through the use of advanced technology. The use of nanoparticles to ‘locate’ the SARS CoV-2 virus and find out how the airborne particles spread quickly is one model our research team is currently working on, as part of our efforts to contribute to mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe the outcome of this research will not only help identify how the airborne particles of the virus spread, but will also help ensure the care-providing environment such as hospitals and clinics are kept safer,” said Dr. Arif Sultan Al Hammadi, executive vice president at Khalifa University of Science and Technology.

Understanding virus transmission

“Understanding the transmission of the virus is crucial in our fight against it. So far, the evidence for modes of transmission has been based on observations that have not been validated experimentally. As one would imagine, it would not be safe to experiment with the real virus, and hence, our decision to use nanoparticles to simulate the virus transmission in the health care environment,” said Dr. Ahmad Rakad Nusair, CCAD managing director.

“Globally, there are different recommendations to prevent the spread of the virus in the health care settings. While they all come from credible regulatory bodies, they are widely variant. The result of that is what we continue to see today, transmission of the virus in different health care settings and in different countries varies a great deal. There were hospitals in other countries that reported more than one third of their health care to have contracted the infection, while others reported minimal transmission. There are many factors that are responsible for the variation we see, including the type of rooms that are used for patient care, the ventilation systems that are in place, the type of PPE that is being used. We are going to look into all those variables and understand each of those effects on the virus transmission. Our scientific experimental approach will enable us to give sound scientific recommendations for health care institutions to protect their staff against COVID-19,” he added.

What are aerosols?
Aerosols are tiny compared to droplets, which are larger in size and may be exhaled by people talking, coughing or sneezing. Droplets don’t travel far and quickly fall to the ground, but aerosols spread to far greater distances and can linger in the air for a longer time, making them more likely infecting others. What constitutes a safe distance from aerosols is much harder to define, especially in indoor spaces with poor ventilation.

The research team, led by Dr. Ammar Nayfeh, Associate Professor, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, comprises Dr. Ayman Rezk, Postdoctoral Fellow, Juveiriah Mohammed Ashraf, Research Engineer, and MSc students Wafa Sulaiman Alnaqbi and Aisha Al Hammadi.

Use of mannequins

The researchers will be using mannequins to simulate a breathing health care worker in a regular room and in a negative pressure isolation room. This is expected to improve the researchers’ understanding of the virus’ epidemiology, the effectiveness of masks and social distancing, and improve how we use our resources in hospitals.

At present, CCAD is partnering with the research team to provide two patient care environments for testing. No patients are involved.