October 7, 2021

Coronaviruses spread through contaminated medium (indoor air), not personal encounters; solution is sanitation of spaces, not targeting individuals

Having looked at the history of cholera in the previous post, we'll draw some lessons for the current SARS 2.0 pandemic (COVID-19), and in a follow-up post, the outbreaks of SARS 1.0 and MERS in the 2000s and 2010s. That is, the other coronaviruses that were harmful to human beings. The pattern probably extends to other coronaviruses, and other respiratory infectious diseases, but I'll stick to these three cases since there's a lot of interest in them, hence a lot known about them, and they're part of the same family.

First, though, the current pandemic is not harmful enough to warrant a "drop everything" effort to eradicate the virus. It is far less deadly than SARS 1.0 and MERS, or influenza for anyone under 65 or 75. This is not a contribution to the Zero COVID insanity, or anything like that. This is strictly an investigation into the transmission dynamics of this family of viruses, and of respiratory infectious diseases more broadly.

The mathematical models they require are very different, and more complex, from the standard epidemic models (S-I-R), as the pathogen is not spread through person-to-person encounters, but through a medium -- into which a sick person sheds pathogens, and from which a healthy person contracts them, all without having to be within a mile of each other for their entire lives. Instead of only tracking individuals who are susceptible, infected, and recovered, we now need to also keep track of the concentration of the pathogen in the medium, and describe how the susceptibles and infecteds interact with this medium, since they do not interact with each other (for disease transmission). From a 3-variable system of differential equations, we must expand into a 4-variable system.

But the math models will wait for another post. The purpose of this post is to properly frame and understand how these coronaviruses are transmitted, what this implies about any attempts to control or eradicate them, and how broadly the results generalize to other respiratory diseases. For while COVID-19 is nothing more than a bad cold, it would still be nice to not have yet another source of bad colds, if the solution is cheap and easy (unlike the expensive, difficult, and failed attempts so far -- masks, social distancing, lockdowns, vaccines, etc.). And if the solution is good, it will impact all sorts of pathogens transmitted in the same way, not just the relatively benign one that causes COVID-19.

Let's start with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The most stunning fact about its transmission is that it never takes place outdoors. This alone eliminates the person-to-person encounter model -- people encounter other people outdoors all the time. The virus travels through the respiratory route, and people breathe all the time out in the open, not just in the privacy of behind closed doors. And yet, no outdoor transmission. Conclusion: it's not passed along through encounters.

It only gets transmitted indoors, especially where ventilation is poor. In that case, the indoor air is acting like a stagnant pond of water -- a medium that is just as physically real as any liquid or solid. Spergs seem to have a problem understanding that the gaseous phase of matter is still matter, but it is. And the more enveloped it is, with little escaping or coming in, the more it is just like a stagnant pond.

All of the super-spreader events have taken place indoors, with poor ventilation. Spring Break on a Miami beach? No. But a church group meeting for an hour or so in the same room? Yes.

One exception to this rule is the inside of an aircraft. These should be ideal super-spreader environments, since people are packed in there for hours on end, drawing passengers from all sorts of different places where the virus could be spreading. And there is a known roster of who was there -- zero difficulty for "contact-tracing" methods that would lead investigators back to a particular flight that all the sick people had taken.

Why don't aircraft interiors serve as super-spreader spaces? Because their air is refreshed -- old air sent out, new air drawn in -- at a far higher rate than just about any other space that ordinary people find themselves in (offices, homes, restaurants, retail, etc.). Think about it: have you ever entered a plane and felt like it was even remotely musty, stuffy, stagnant? Hot during summer, maybe, but not oppressive in its air quality.

Of course, someone infected could travel by plane and spread the disease once they landed and entered some other indoor space with poorer ventilation than a plane. But not to the other passengers and crew during that flight itself.

Immediately we discover one of the most powerful ways to stop the spread of this and similarly transmitted pathogens -- amp up the refresh rate of the air indoors. Natural ventilation would do well, but if that's not feasible, then through the HVAC system. Whether or not the increase in power costs would be justified by the decrease in disease cases is an empirical matter, and could vary from one virus to the other. But it's the best place to start.

Note that this solution has nothing to do with individuals, whether sick or healthy. It's changing the environment where the contaminated medium is located. This would be akin to altering a stagnant pond of water into a moving river supplied by a fresh mountain spring. Whatever germs that had been deposited in one part of the river by a sick person would be carried away by the current. Always safer to drink running water than stagnant water.

* * *

The specifics of how a COVID-19 victim deposits virus particles into the indoor air is not too relevant. We could be wholly ignorant of microscopic phenomena, and still conclude that this thing is transmitted through stagnant indoor air, and try to solve it by improving ventilation. But as it happens, we do know how the virus contaminates the medium: a sick person enters the indoor space, expels air from their lungs in various ways (breathing, talking, coughing, etc.), and the particles are small enough to become suspended in the air (aerosols).

It's like mixing sugar into your coffee -- once you do so, it's part of the coffee. The sugar crystals are not large enough to sink to the bottom, and they're just mixed throughout the entire volume of liquid. You can't drink your way around them -- every sip has some sugar in it.

Virus particles exhaled into indoor air is not quite as thorough of a mixing process -- nothing is stirring them all around the indoor volume to get them everywhere. But their tendency is to diffuse in every which direction, so they will mix themselves evenly into the air (although diffusion is a slow process). Most likely there are clouds of particles where the sick person had exhaled, and other virus-free pockets far away where they had not been. However, there's no way to detect these virus clouds through any of your bodily senses, so there's still no way to navigate your way around them. Once they're there, someone's bound to walk through them and breathe them in -- perhaps minutes or hours later, without having any encounter with the sick person who exhaled them.

The main things that affect how many virus particles there are in the medium are the number of infected people who come into contact with it, and the duration of their contact. Does some supermarket have only 1, or maybe 10, or 50 infecteds wander through it on a given day? And do those infecteds wander around for just 5 minutes or 50 minutes exhaling particles?

The same is true for how many new cases a given space can generate -- how many susceptible people wander through it, and for how long of a visit?

* * *

Now we see why lockdowns, social distancing, masks, and even vaccines are not working to stop the spread.

Lockdowns left several crucial buildings operating, like supermarkets.

Social distancing came from the incorrect view of close personal encounters as the transmission, while also forcing people -- sick and healthy alike -- to spend more time immersed in the medium, as they have to take more winding paths to avoid others.

Masks are too crude to filter out the tiny virus particles, but they did trick people into spending more time immersed in the medium because they thought their face-armor was a magical protector. This also increased the number passing through, who otherwise would've stayed away without their supposedly magical armor.

Vaccines seem to be playing a similar role, encouraging more people to pass through a space, and to spend more time inside it, fooled into believing they're magically protected. If they neutralized the virus, that would be one thing, but they don't appear to do that, only ameliorate symptoms, which means they're about as useless as masks at stopping transmission. They may in fact be worse than masks in that regard, since masks do not ameliorate symptoms -- so if you got it, you were laid out for several days to a week, and you were not going to indoor spaces outside the home. The vaccine lessens your symptoms, leaving you more able to leave the home and spread your virus particles throughout indoor spaces.

Of course vaccine mandates are even worse, compelling even more people to become not-so-bed-ridden spreaders if they contract the virus.

Strange, isn't it? All of the mass-scale solutions have been totally ineffective at stopping the spread, clamping down on hospitalizations, deaths, and so on. And we're only just getting started in the autumn season -- get ready for winter!

These solutions all failed because they were based on the personal encounter model of transmission. They're all about minimizing risk when two people come near each other, as though COVID-19 were an STD, and The Experts were telling you to wear a condom and get the HPV vaccine. But that's not how this sucker works.

The main thing we can do is to sanitize the indoor air quality. Improve natural and artificial ventilation to fully change the air more often, so that virus particles that enter the medium do not hang around for very long. Improve filtration to remove particles. Perhaps put something into the air to kill the virus, if such a substance exists, and if there are no side-effects to breathing it in -- highly doubtful, but still a possibility, better than vaccinating every last individual.

These are the lessons from cholera, another example of an infectious agent spread through a medium rather than person-to-person. Unfortunately we cannot separate outgoing vs. ingoing air volumes, like they were able to do with sewage water vs. drinking water. That leaves the other methods of sanitation (improving flow / reducing stagnancy, filtration, treatment with virus-killers).

* * *

I doubt these improvements will be made in my lifetime, and highly doubt they'll be taken up during the current pandemic. Just as the anti-contagionist John Snow did not solve the cholera pandemics of his day simply by figuring out what medium was transmitting the disease. Too many other interests at play in public health.

For one thing, sanitation places all the costs on the elites, whether private or public. A single individual citizen cannot do anything to alter the ventilation of any indoor building outside the home. That's on the owners and operators of the buildings. He could try pressuring them, but I mean he is unable to do anything in virtue of his role as a lowly citizen, whereas owners and operators can make changes any time they feel like it.

We live in a time of wicked elites, not benign or mutualistic elites. Just like John Snow's climate, living in Dickensian / Victorian England. Not until the Progressive Era and New Deal did they finally clean up the water supplies and end cholera. Our wicked elites would rather every one of us shoulder the burden -- stay apart from each other, wear a mask, get the jab, etc. (And even then, to no effect.)

I imagine Dickensian elites had a similar "let them eat cake" attitude toward solving cholera. Just stay away from other people who show symptoms of cholera, or stay away from each other altogether. Put a cloth -- any old cloth -- over the mouth of your glass when you drink water from it that might be contaminated with cholera. If you have cholera, put your excretion through a baking sieve before it goes into the sewer. We must all do our part.

If they'd had vaccines back then, their Dickensian elites would've said the same thing as ours -- everyone get a jab so that when you come into contact with a public water supply that we refuse to clean up, you won't come down with such nasty symptoms when you inevitably contract the pathogen.

Or maybe they would've said just build your own private water system. Don't ever drink from the public one, and don't ever send your excrement into it. Then what's the point of it being there? Exactly like the "stay home" solution -- sorry, you can't avoid indoor spaces outside the home, even if you do have a fake work-from-home job. We all have to go to indoor places outside the home, and we all have to breathe, just as we all have to excrete and drink.

Sanitation of public goods and spaces is what we need, not the impossible task of isolation from those necessities.

The other major reason I don't see the correct decision being made anytime soon is that sanitation of public spaces is a unifying solution, and our current climate is one of hyper-polarization and antagonism. There's no way to identify if you're a member of Team Us or Team Them, if the elites are just cleaning up the indoor air. No masks to wear as tribal membership badges. No personal decision whether or not to get vaccinated, or whether or not to submit to vaccine passports, and so on and so forth.

Americans, and those in their sphere of influence, are a crumbling empire, going through a disintegrative phase. They are dead-set on antagonizing their so-called fellow citizens, and polarizing any situation that might offer a common solution.

Again, the current pandemic is not a huge problem in need of solving at the expense of everything else. But it would be worth terminating if it were cheap and easy. And future pandemics might not be so relatively painless as this one. Not to mention existing respiratory diseases -- might be nice to get rid of some of those, too.

But none of that will happen until the polarization reaches a maximum, and after that cataclysm, the elite ranks get thinned out, with the remainder not wanting to be so antagonistic and polarized as earlier, lest the cataclysm strike all over again. This is a description of how things work, not a consultant's pitch to a team of managers about "here's your problem, now here's your solution". They won't listen, and you're just LARP-ing by behaving otherwise.

Somebody has to set all this stuff down, though, for the record -- and in the hopes that it gets preserved long enough to be useful when the society has survived the cataclysm, and the elites become less wicked after passing through the Great Winnowing.


  1. Did masks select for variants? The S1 subunit of the spike protein underwent positive selection, and convergent evolution (multiple paths to the same solution), during summer and fall of 2020.


    I'm just spitballing here in the comments, not a separate post with extra research.

    Hard to think of what else changed around that time, other than universal masking. Not lockdowns -- places opened back up during that period. Social distancing was dead by then. Vaccines would not start for more than half a year later.

    The spike protein had already been optimized to infect human lung tissue, by gain-of-function research in the lab. It did perfectly well when it originally escaped in late 2019 and early 2020. Then it hit some kind of roadblock during summer / fall 2020.

    That could only be masks -- 100% of people wore them in 100% of indoor spaces (and sometimes outdoors as well), for 100% of the duration of their visit.

    The virus did not face this obstacle in the wild with bats, nor in the lab, nor in the early stages of its escape after being GoF-ed into a more human-optimized form.

  2. How did masks select for new spike forms? Who knows? That's what it was, by black-box reasoning alone.

    But just brainstorming -- we know masks did not stop the particles from moving through or moving out of the masks. They did absolutely nothing to stop the spread, as we witnessed during the winter wave, well after universal masking had been adopted.

    However, maybe it was like running through a gauntlet -- the virus got through, but it got a little dinged along the way in / out. Given its geometry, this would not affect the solid dense spherical core, but the spindly spike proteins that stretch outward.

    Put something shaped like that through a net -- the spindly fingers are going to get caught on the netting, while the ball could pass through the gap.

    It doesn't mean the spikes would get ripped off -- just that they would experience stress unlike in the wild / lab / unmasked early pandemic.

  3. Maybe they get bent and "smoothed" as they pass through, so they don't stand perpendicular to the sphere anymore, but are laying down at strange angles (like when a cat's whiskers when passing through a narrow corridor). That could hinder its movement (no longer symmetrical), or its ability to use these flattened-down spikes to hook into lung tissue.

    Maybe the masks did rip off a piece of the spike that got caught in the netting. Now that spike has nothing to hook onto lung tissue with.

    Maybe the they remained in the same configuration, but the stress of passing through the gauntlet weakened them, made them brittle, or something. That hampered their ability to latch onto the tissue.

    Whatever it was, selection would've favored a variant that could withstand the stresses associated with passing through the mask -- on the way in or on the way out.

    One that was more rigid, to slice through the netting. Or one that was more loose and fluid to easily bend without getting stressed, then return to its original configuration. Whatever it was, it was better able to pass through the mask-gauntlet without impairment of its ability to move around and eventually latch onto lung tissue.

  4. This would be a standard case of a co-evolutionary arms race, whereby we strengthened the pathogen by putting up armor (however weak) in its way. This degree of optimization did not happen in the wild (no masks on bats), nor in the lab (they did not pass virus particles through a mask before they hit the lung tissue).

    Only by our adoption of universal masking did we make it stronger than ever. Our weak vaccine-armor seems to be doing the same thing.

    But these enhancements from the virus must have come at some cost, otherwise they would've been there in the first place -- stronger, at no extra cost? Of course we'll do that! But if it comes at a big cost and that level of strength is unnecessary -- because there are no masks to pass through -- then don't invest in being that strong.

    So the only solution is to stop masking and mass-vaxxing, which will get out of the arms race, and select for the wimpier strains that were around in the early stages. Don't give it an incentive to invest the higher cost into toughening itself up.


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