Hamsters on planes could reveal whether covid is airborne

Putting hamsters on an a plane could prove whether the coronavirus can be spread through airborne transmission, infectious disease expert says

  • Prof David Heymann said placing hamsters on planes could reveal whether Covid-19 can be spread through the aircraft’s air circulation system   
  • The WHO said yesterday there is ‘evidence emerging’ of airborne transmission 
  • Previously thought the virus spread in droplets released by an infected person 

Putting hamsters on a plane could reveal whether the coronavirus can be spread through airborne transmission, according to a top infectious diseases expert.   

David Heymann, a professor of infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that more research was needed to test whether the deadly virus could stay alive in air conditioning, or in a plane’s air circulation system. 

Speaking at Chatham House, where he is chief of Global Health Security, Professor Heymann, said animal studies would be an effective way of testing whether the bug could be spread through the air.  

He recommended placing hamsters, which can catch Covid-19,  around rooms and on board planes to see whether the animals become infected.  

Pictured: File photo of a European Hamster crawling from its burrow. A top epidemiologist said today that the virus’s airborne transmission potential could be researched using live animal subjects 

A top epidemiologist today said that airborne transmission could be determined using animal test subjects on planes to see whether they became infected through the vehicle’s air circulation system. Pictured, people wearing face masks in Thailand, July 8

Professor David L Heymann (pictured) speaks during a WHO press conference in July 2016  

‘In the past it was done for tuberculosis with guinea pigs,’ Prof Heymann said. 

‘The hamsters can be infected with this virus, and there are actually cages sitting around in their various parts and experiments that are being done by academic institutions that will give us information as to whether or not this virus is spreading in aerosols, in airborne transmission.’ 

The suggestion comes after World Health Organization officials admitted there is ‘evidence emerging’ that coronavirus can be spread through the air.   

Prof Heymann summed up the findings, saying: ‘What we believe is that there is a possibility that there is this airborne transmission in enclosed spaces, that an air conditioning unit, especially one on the wall, might be able to pick up an aerosol and spit it back out, if it’s not filtered, into the room and circulate it throughout the room[…] 

‘And so, collecting that evidence over time, maybe doing experiments, maybe putting guinea pigs, or hamsters rather, on airplanes and flying them around with airborne transmission might be a way of showing those things.’     

Prof Heymann warned that the virus being airborne may also mean the public would have to take additional precautions to protect themselves.  

Facemasks designed to stop the spread by droplets, as was previously instructed by the WHO. Pictured, people wearing face masks while queueing outside Ikea in Dublin, Ireland, June 8

The eyes would be an entry point for the disease rather than the nose or mouth, meaning that face masks would only be useful for protecting others.  

There is no evidence that the virus is spreading airborne in open communities, the professor said.  

The WHO previously said the virus spreads primarily through droplets expelled from the nose and mouth of an infected person. 

Airborne transmission means that a virus can be spread in droplets so small that they can float in the air and do not fall after being propelled by a cough or sneeze. 

The WHO’s consideration follows 239 scientists in 32 countries writing to the UN agency asking it to acknowledge the growing evidence the virus is airborne. 


Airborne diseases are those where germs from a person’s breathe, sneeze or cough can linger in the air and travel because the droplets are very small in size.  

Aerosols are so small and can linger in the air for longer and travel further. They include tiny particles like smoke, which can stay airborne for up to eight hours.

There is some compelling evidence to say that SARS-CoV-2 is airborne, despite most of it not being subject to peer review. 

The virus can remain in the air ‘for three hours’

Scientists in the US have shown in the laboratory that the virus can survive in an aerosol and remain infectious for at least three hours.

However, at the time the WHO argued the conditions of the experiment were too artificial and did not represent what happens if someone coughs in real life. 

The virus spread between diners at a restaurant who had no contact 

One study revealed how a cluster of people caught the coronavirus in a restaurant without being in contact with each other.  

Nine people in three families in Guangzhou, China, were diagnosed with the virus after eating at the same restaurant as the ‘source’ patient. But the researchers said droplets from coughing and sneezing alone could not explain the spread of the virus. 

The team, led by Yuguo Li at The University of Hong Kong, measured the ventilation in the room and concluded that ‘aerosol transmission of SARS-CoV-2 due to poor ventilation may explain the community spread of COVID-19’.  

However, the same cluster of cases was studied by a different group who reported their own conclusions in a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) journal on April 2.

Jianyun Lu and colleagues from the Guangzhou Center for Disease Control and Prevention said: ‘From our examination of the potential routes of transmission, we concluded that the most likely cause of this outbreak was droplet transmission. However, strong airflow from the air conditioner could have propagated droplets.’ 

The team admitted droplets from coughing and sneezing alone could not explain the spread of the virus. 

The virus can linger in crowded places 

In April, Chinese researchers found that the coronavirus can linger in the air of crowded places and published their findings in the journal Nature.

Experts in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the pandemic began, analyzed air samples from 30 sites across the city – in which coronavirus was first reported – including inside hospitals as well as public areas.

Results showed the virus, called SARS-CoV-2, was too low to be detected in all areas except two ‘prone to crowding’.

Viral particles were found floating in the air of hospital toilets, which had very little ventilation. 

They also discovered especially high concentrations in the rooms where medical staff put on and took off protective gear.

The latter suggests the virus can latch onto clothing and become airborne again when when masks, gloves and gowns are removed.

Researchers behind the study say the findings highlight the importance of ventilation, limiting crowds and proper disinfection.

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