Nebulizer That Vaporized Virus Starts New Australia Outbreak


A cluster of the virulent U.K. strain of coronavirus in Australia rose to 11 on Thursday, with authorities saying it started in a Melbourne quarantine hotel by a person who used a nebulizer to treat a health condition.

The medical device, which vaporizes medication or liquid, also worked to spread the virus through mist “suspended in the air with very, very fine aerosolized particles,” said Victoria state Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.

This was how the virus was carried out of the hotel room into the corridor, where staff walking the halls were exposed, he said.

The outbreak is yet another example of the insidious ways that SARS-CoV-2 can spread, stymieing even countries with the strictest travel and containment regimes in the world.

The outbreak is raising concern that Australia’s quarantine system, in which many overseas arrivals must stay in designated hotels in major cities for 14 days, must be reinforced or redesigned as more virulent strains of the virus spread worldwide.

Infectious particles expelled from an infected person’s nose and mouth are thought to be the main source of Covid-19 infection. Although larger respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes are the main source of transmission, a growing body of evidence is implicating smaller aerosol particles that can float in the air further and longer.

In light of that, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending this week that Americans wear either a cloth mask with multiple layers of fabric or a surgical mask beneath a cloth one to improve protection against the coronavirus.

In Melbourne, authorities believe the virus spread from the nebulizer used by a person in a family of three quarantined in the hotel, to at least six workers. Two of the three new cases identified on Thursday were spouses of infected staff.

While testing for the virus has been ramped up in Australia’s second-largest city and investigators seek to track and isolate all contacts of the hotel workers, other regions are wary of contagion: South Australia state has announced it’s blocking arrivals from Melbourne.

Melbourne, which is currently hosting the Australian Open Grand Slam tennis tournament, last year endured one of the world’s strictest and longest lockdowns, which confined the city’s 5 million residents to their homes for more than three months.

Australia, which has recorded fewer than 29,000 cases of Covid-19 since the pandemic began, has come close to eliminating community transmission of the virus through strict controls on travel, vigilant contact tracing methods, and testing.

“This new, more infectious U.K. strain has blown open cracks in our hotel quarantine system, putting the nation at risk,” Omar Khorshid, president of the Australian Medical Association, said in a statement. “Alternatives must be found now that will allow some travel in and out of Australia whilst protecting all Australians from this virus.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.