Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has infected nearly 135,000 people globally and the death toll has topped 5,000. The virus pays no mind to borders and has spread to 127 countries since last December. But there is one, seemingly insurmountable border the coronavirus will likely not cross – space.
As coronavirus infects more and more people with every passing day, many social media users have dubbed the ISS the safest place to be.
Twitter user Adnan Kazmy said: “Probably the most safest place from corona virus in habitable universe is the ISS @Space_Station. Bunch of lucky guys… #CoronavirusPandemic”
Payton Peterson said: “If only I was on the International Space Station right now… #coronavirus”
And Twitter user Syed Aly said the three astronauts are the “only people safe” from coronavirus.
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Three humans are currently living and working in low-Earth orbit, away from the chaos of coronavirus.
These are the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) who are currently orbiting the Earth at a height of about 250 miles (402km).
The ISS crew consists of NASA astronauts Jessica Meir and Andrew Morgan, and Russia’s Oleg Skripochka.
But the ISS may not be as safe from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as many have claimed.
According to Jonathan Clark, a former crew surgeon for NASA’s Space Shuttle programme, the microgravity environment of the ISS could be very problematic for a viral outbreak.
Dr Clark said viruses in space can spread much more easily because they stay airborne much longer.
With no gravity to pull them down, virus particles will hover in the air rather than settle on surfaces.
They stay suspended in the air and could be more easily transmitted
Jonathan Clark, NASA
In the case of the novel coronavirus, the pathogen is spread on tiny droplets of bodily fluid that are released when coughing or sneezing.
These particles trigger mild flu-like symptoms such as dry cough and fatigue but can also develop into pneumonia.
Dr Clark told Space.com: “The absence of gravity precludes particles settling down, so they stay suspended in the air and could be more easily transmitted.
“To prevent this, compartments are ventilated and the air HEPA filters would remove particles.”
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In addition to the worry, a March 2019 study by NASA found spaceflight carries the risk of reactivating long-dormant viruses such as the Varicella Zoster Virus.
The virus is responsible for causing chickenpox in children and shingles in adults.
Dr Clark said: “There are antiviral medications that could be used to prevent viral spread, much as has been considered for the terrestrial viral epidemics.
“Also, for planetary missions, the crew would be isolated upon return to Earth, just like they were done in the early missions returning from the Moon.”
As long as coronavirus particles never make their way to the ISS, the astronauts should be able to sleep tight.
However, in the event coronavirus or any other viral pathogen is carried onto the Space Station, there are some contingency plans in place.
Dr Clark said: “It’s hard to implement quarantine in small spaces but a crew member with an URI would be isolated in their sleep quarter while symptomatic, and wear a mask for containment, have cultures done to identify the organism for appropriate treatment.”
The next batch of astronauts to visit the ISS is scheduled to launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on April 9.
Russian cosmonauts Nikolai Tikhonov and Andrei Babkin will join NASA’s Chris Cassidy on the mission.
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