A Chinese official has confirmed a scary new fact about the deadly coronavirus: it is airborne.
It was previously understood that two main ways the virus transmitted from person to person were:
• Direct transmission: breathing in air close to an infected patient who sneezes or coughs, and
• Contact transmission: when a person touches an object tainted with the virus before infecting themselves by touching their mouth, nose or eyes.
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However, over the weekend, an official in Shanghai confirmed the virus also travelled through aerosol transmission, which means it can float a long distance through the air and cause infection later when it is breathed in.
"Aerosol transmission refers to the mixing of the virus with droplets in the air to form aerosols, which causes infection after inhalation, according to medical experts," Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau deputy head Zeng Qun said at press briefing on Saturday, the China Daily reports.
"As such, we have called on the public to raise their awareness of the prevention and control of the disease caused by family gatherings."
The concerns about airborne spread of the disease are so dire that the government has urged residents to cancel all social activities and avoid gatherings altogether.
People are also urged to open windows in the home to help with ventilation, and disinfect door handles, dinner tables and toilet seats.
This worrying development comes as the death toll from the virus in mainland China hits 811, making it more deadly than the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic.
A further 89 people, most in the virus's epicentre of Hubei, have been pronounced dead from the outbreak, which pushes the death toll beyond the 774 killed worldwide by SARS, which took hold in 2002 and 2003.
The number of people infected in China is now almost 37,200.
There is a small ray of hope, however, with the World Health Organisation saying the outbreak appears to be "stabilising".