Imagine you’re an atmospheric chemist. There’s a pandemic. And public health officials release information about how the virus spreads from one person to another—information that directly contradicts your knowledge of how tiny particles move in the air. What do you do? In this episode of Stereo Chemistry, Jose-Luis Jimenez and Kimberly Prather talk to C&EN editor Jyllian Kemsley about how they’ve handled that situation over the past 2 years. They share their frustrations with public health officials along with the heartbreak and rewards of communicating science with the general public, and what they plan to take from their experiences as they think about their research going forward.
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The following is a transcript of the episode. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Kimberly Prather: I always believed that if you just like laid down the facts, provided the evidence, that people would go along with what was best for humanity. And that has not been the case during this pandemic. That has killed me.
Kerri Jansen: Kimberly Prather is an atmospheric chemist at the University of California San Diego. She’s spent decades researching particles floating in the atmosphere to understand where they come from and how they might affect human health and climate. And in a conversation with Stereo Chemistry last October, she echoed the frustration of many scientists as she reflected on how the world has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and how her own work has become entwined with the pandemic news cycle.
The last 2 years have put unique demands on many scientists, and not just those involved in understanding the virus and how to treat it. The subject of how the virus spreads from one person to another became surprisingly contentious. Whether it spreads primarily through droplets contaminating surfaces or particles drifting through the air generated fierce debate.
Kim has been one of the prominent voices asserting that COVID is airborne. In this episode of Stereo Chemistry, she’s joined by Jose-Luis Jimenez, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and one of Kim’s comrades in arms in the argument for airborne virus transmission. They shared with us how they navigated hundreds of media interviews and thousands of emails and Twitter messages, and, after many exhausting months, how they’re thinking about the future.
I’m your host, Kerri Jansen.
Attabey Rodríguez Benítez: And I’m Attabey Rodríguez Benítez. Also joining us is C&EN executive editor Jyllian Kemsley, who spoke with Kim and Jose last October. Welcome, Jyllian!
Jyllian Kemsley: Thanks, Attabey! It’s hard to believe that we’re closing out the second year of the pandemic. On the one hand, a lot has changed in our understanding of the virus and its impact. On the other hand, all of these new variants means there’s a lot that hasn’t changed. How about you two? How have you changed how you’re protecting yourself since the early days of the pandemic?
Attabey: Well, I don’t frantically wipe down my groceries with disinfectant after each trip. So, there’s that.
Kerri: I wrote 1,300 words on disinfectants in March 2020, back when you could hardly find disinfectants in stores. I’m definitely feeling less anxious about surfaces these days. I’m still wearing a mask in public, though, and staying away from large groups as much as possible.
Jyllian: Me, too. And that’s what we should be doing, along with improving indoor air ventilation and filtration, according to Kim and Jose. In fact, it was their Twitter feeds that I turned to when I checked my school district’s approach to classroom air filtration before my kids returned to in-person school.
Kerri: Well, I look forward to hearing more about how they got involved in this global conversation about aerosols and virus transmission. Take it away, Attabey and Jyllian.
Attabey: Thanks, Kerri. So, Jyllian, can you tell us a bit more about Kim’s and Jose’s backgrounds? How did they come to be in these unexpected roles?
Jyllian: Well, they’re both leaders in understanding atmospheric aerosols—particles that come from dust kicked up by desert winds, vehicle and factory emissions, breaking ocean waves, and other sources. Kim and Jose have each worked to develop instrumentation that allows scientists to study airborne particles individually in real time. We know that breathing particulate matter can cause heart and lung problems, so understanding more about where they come from and how they evolve in the air is critically important for enacting pollution controls that improve health and address climate change. And it’s not just cars and factories that can pollute the air. Kim has also been studying areas where sewage is discharged into the ocean. Crashing waves spawn aerosols containing viruses and bacteria, and she wants to figure out whether that’s a way diseases can spread.
Attabey: Okay, but what exactly is an aerosol?
Jyllian: Let’s let Kim define it:
Kimberly Prather: An aerosol is a stable suspension of solid or liquid particles in the air. They come out of someone’s mouth, or they come out of a smokestack, or they come out of the tailpipe, and you watch them, they don’t fall to the ground. They float and waft off into the sky.
Attabey: So, aerosols are itty-bitty bits of material small and light enough to float, got it.
Then what was the controversy over COVID and droplets versus aerosols and whether the virus can spread through air?
Jyllian: That’s a really interesting question. And to answer it, we need to take a quick trip back into history. It actually wouldn’t have been a controversy up until a little more than a hundred years ago. Until 1900, people would have assumed COVID spread through the air. They blamed pretty much everything on miasmas, which was really just a term for “bad air.” Things started to change in the late 1800s when Louis Pasteur and other scientists established germ theory, the concept that diseases are caused by microorganisms that invade the body. Here’s Jose talking about what happened next.
Jose-Luis Jimenez: And then there are diseases like cholera, which was thought to just be through the air, and then we realized, no, it’s through water. And malaria that was thought to transmit through the air and it’s like, no, it’s mosquitoes. And childbed fever that was thought to transmit through the air, and they said no, it’s through your hands. So then there is a diminishing role of the air. And Charles Chapin in the 1920s, a public health researcher that summarizes all the evidence, and he champions contact infection to say it’s these droplets. And infection through the air is almost impossible. He doesn’t have proof. He just says it. But this becomes a dogma.
Jyllian: So medical experts started to believe that respiratory infections were spread through droplets that spray out of your nose and mouth when you sneeze or cough. Those droplets land somewhere within about 2 meters or 6 feet, and then someone else touches a spot where a droplet landed and then touches their face. That became the dogma of how infection spreads from person to person.
But not everything that comes out when you sneeze or cough is large and heavy enough to fall on a surface. You also release small particles—those aerosols we’ve been discussing—that float and can be inhaled by someone else. You also produce those small particles when you speak or breathe. Think about what you see when someone is smoking and exhales–that smoke wafts away and doesn’t quickly fall to the ground. And those small particles can go a long way. That’s why Kim was shocked when public health officials talked about 6 feet as a safe distance to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Kimberly Prather: I mean, I study aerosols going 10,000 miles (1,600 km). So the fact that somebody thought they would stop in 6 feet was quite honestly kind of a joke to me.
Attabey: 10,000 miles? Woah.
Jyllian: Right? Kim and her colleagues have demonstrated that dust and biological particles from Africa turn up in clouds above California. So you can imagine how dismayed she and Jose were to see public health messaging that was completely at odds with what they know as scientists.
Attabey: I can’t even imagine how I would react in that situation.
Jyllian: But the real problem was that those on the public health side were generally not very willing to listen to the aerosol researchers. On March 28, 2020, the World Health Organization tweeted, “FACT: #COVID19 is NOT airborne” while advising people to protect themselves by staying 1 m away from others, disinfecting surfaces, and washing hands. That tweet catalyzed a group of scientists, including Jose, to meet with the organization a few days later.
Jose-Luis Jimenez: It was shocking. I mean, that was a shocking meeting in how dismissive they were. They are convinced, but they don’t have anything to support this thing on. It’s just a bunch of errors that date from a century ago. And that continues to this day. There is many officials that, to this day, continue to deny it, and they don’t have any evidence to support these droplets or anything. And it’s clear that it’s all airborne, so it is very frustrating. And I’m sure, I mean, I think Kim and I share this experience of it’s like hitting your head against a wall.
Attabey: Jose talks there about not having evidence to support spreading COVID-19 through droplets. But what’s the evidence for aerosols?
Jyllian: Well, Kim and a colleague from a university in China led a group that put together a review in August. They cataloged air sampling, animal, clinical, epidemiological, and modeling studies all pointing to airborne transmission. They also found similar evidence for airborne transmission of other viruses such as influenza and rhinovirus, the cause of the common cold.
And of course this isn’t some abstract academic debate that only people in an ivory tower care about. The reason Jose and Kim and others are so passionate about correcting the record about aerosols versus droplets, and why they continue to sound the alarm about these misconceptions, is that understanding how COVID-19 spreads was and is critical for addressing the pandemic until people worldwide can be vaccinated.
Kimberly Prather: We should not be here. If we’d acknowledged, as others have, that this virus travels through the air, back in February or March of 2020, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. There’s no question in my mind. We would have saved, you know, hundreds of thousands of lives. It’s just a real tragedy that people have blocked, honestly blocked, and smeared that messaging. I know those are harsh words, but I can’t say it any lighter than that. I, I don’t understand. And I, my patience is getting thinner by the day as we continue down this path.
Attabey: So how have Kim and Jose tried to get the message out that COVID is airborne?
Jyllian: They’ve approached it in a couple of different ways. As we already noted, they’ve met with public health officials. They’ve also done what scientists typically do—they’ve written and published papers. Way back in June 2020, Kim and others wrote a perspective in the journal Science, and it has been downloaded more than 15,000 times. The review I mentioned earlier on airborne transmission of respiratory viruses has been downloaded more than 160,000 times.
Attabey: And you also mentioned that both of these scientists have been prolific on Twitter.
Jyllian: That, too. Jose and Kim told us they had been on Twitter before the pandemic, but when their attention turned to the coronavirus, they started using it more as a way to reach other scientists and the public.
Jose-Luis Jimenez: If someone had told me 2 years ago that I will be posting things, accusing the WHO of misinformation and causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, I would be like, “What crack are you smoking? I mean, me? How am I going to do that?” Now it’s like I do that every week.
I think I had 300 followers before the pandemic. Because I remember, in July last year one day I was telling my wife I have a thousand followers! A thousand followers! I just couldn’t believe it.
Jyllian: Jose now has more than 85,000 followers. Kim’s following has grown to more than 52,000.
Jose-Luis Jimenez: I mean Twitter also has its dark sides and its trolls and whatever, but I have found it to be a really useful means of communication to find other scientists, communicate with other scientists, to get the science out to the public, to answer questions. I think the format is nice. That it has to be short is a big advantage. You can find the scientists, you know, who you disagree with and you say, “But what do you think of this?” And then they have to reply in very few words and I think that’s a big advantage.
Kimberly Prather: I would say that it has made connections. I’ve written papers with Twitter coauthors I’ve never met. That never would have happened before. I’ve done, you know, seminars with Twitter coauthors. So I say it comes down on the positive side in terms of connecting really good people.
Attabey: I’ve also written a paper with someone I met through Twitter! It was all about data visualization, and it wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t met through Twitter. What about interacting with people who aren’t scientists?
Jyllian: Kim and Jose have done a lot of that, too. They both see it as a responsibility to flag information that they think is critical and to challenge people who are spreading misinformation. And Twitter helped them get those messages out even as public health officials and others stuck with droplets and surfaces.
Jose-Luis Jimenez: We’ve written many papers, I mean, Kim has led some amazing papers. They still ignore them. You know, so doing only science and publishing it, they can ignore it, they can say, “Oh, that’s not a good paper.” Or like, like some official in Canada was saying that Kim Prather is not credible on aerosols, and I burst out laughing in an interview, what are you talking about? [laughs]. But on the other hand, Twitter is harder to ignore, in the sense that we’re not anybody. We are credible scientists, who have a credible message, who were credible before the pandemic, and we are reaching out to people on Twitter, and the public health officials are not able to block the message. Because we can reach the people directly. And we can reach out to journalists, who then interview us as someone credible. And that is something also they cannot ignore.
Attabey: It must be particularly hard to ignore when the aerosol scientists are doing a lot of media interviews.
Jyllian: Yes, and although those media interactions may have started with Kim and Jose reaching out to journalists, it quickly became journalists finding them. Jose mentioned there was one day when he received 30 interview requests. Clearly they couldn’t do all the interviews people wanted them to do, so I asked how they chose.
Jyllian (in interview): How have you decided, you know, which interviews to do and which not to?
Kimberly Prather: One of the things I did that was semistrategic, although I would say that in retrospect, I forged bonds with a few really key reporters, one in particular from CBS. I think I did every show on CBS a few times. And this reporter, his name’s Dr. Jon LaPook, he’s the CBS medical correspondent, and he became one of the biggest voices of airborne out there, and he has a huge platform. And he became as impassioned with it as we all are. So I sort of recruited him, or he recruited me, I don’t know which one recruited who. But that has been an amazing partnership.
Jose-Luis Jimenez: In my case, I also noticed early on that, basically, there were a lot of people like Kim that could explain this very well in English, but there weren’t very many that could do that in Spanish. So I started, you know, preferentially saying, if someone calls from the US it’s like, OK, you should call Kim. And then I would accept the interviews in Spanish.
Jyllian (voice-over): I want to pause here to note that I felt tired just listening to Jose and Kim describe all of the work and interviews that they did to try to spread the word about airborne transmission. And I also learned that the work we see publicly—on Twitter and on the news—is only part of what they were, and are, doing. They both described being inundated with personal messages from worried people asking for help. As we got further into the interview, they shared how some of those interactions became very emotional.
Jose-Luis Jimenez: Probably the one that’s more seared into my brain is at one time, we were talking to some people in Ecuador. There was this lady who was in charge of some rural hospital. And then as I explained how transmission went and what people had to do, she started crying. And she’s like, “Why nobody told us? I have three people with COVID here in the house. Nobody has said a word of what you’re saying about how we’re getting it. We’re all washing our hands, but . . .” You know, so, we’ve been trying, and that’s what I’m doing here today, but we have very limited reach.
Kimberly Prather: You get literally letters saying, you know, “If I go to work and this room has this carpet,” well, you know, like you have all these detailed questions. It’s exhausting. And sometimes you think I can’t do this, I can’t. Do they think that, like, I can answer every one of these? But at the same time people’s lives depend on it. And so who do you ignore? Who do you not answer?
Jose-Luis Jimenez: There was this lady who wrote to me, you know, “My husband has cancer, and he has 6 months to live, and my children”—this was before vaccines—”my children want to come visit him, but how can they visit him safely?” So I spent, I don’t know, 10 emails explaining every detail of how to set up this house and I . . . but how could I not do that? You know, and I’m sure as Kim has as well, I’ve done that 20 times. So I don’t know. It’s fulfilling to be able to help people and at the same time, it’s frustrating that, why am I having to do this? There are people who are paid to communicate public health messages. You know, why are those people not communicating what needs to be done?
Attabey: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we’ll hear from Kim and Jose about their takeaways from this experience and how they’re thinking about the future.
Arminda Downey-Mavromatis: Hello, Arminda Downey-Mavromatis here! I work with C&EN’s Audience Engagement team, and I am thrilled to tell you about our latest newsletter, Selling Your Science: The Art of Science Communication.
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And now, back to the show.
Attabey: Jyllian, right before the break, we heard Jose and Kim talk about some of the really emotional interactions they’ve had with nonscientists through media interviews and Twitter. What’s kept them going through all this?
Jyllian: I asked them about that.
Jyllian (in interview): It sounds to me like, you know, this is really about people, for both of you.
Kimberly Prather: Yeah, it’s people and it’s a problem that is in our wheelhouse. Like the part that’s not understood, is what we do for a living.
Jose-Luis Jimenez: I mean, I agree. It’s really . . . I mean if this was some scientific problem about, you know, the composition of this molecule, I mean, those are interesting and we get into very big debates with our colleagues. But there’s never, you know, you don’t get emotional in the same way, because people are not dying.
Kimberly Prather: Honestly, if it was a normal science, like, battle, like, you’re right, I’m wrong, who’s wrong, who’s right? I would have walked away a long time ago, given how draining it is. But when lives are on the line, you can’t do that. You know, you can’t. I can’t. And so I’ve kept going. I think it’s just, it’s not about who’s right or wrong, but it’s getting an answer that helps the world. It is the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done. It’s also the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
Attabey: It sounds like spreading the word on airborne transmission has been emotionally draining for both Kim and Jose.
Jyllian: Yes it has. And that brings us back to Kim’s quote from the very beginning of the episode about the frustration that the facts alone don’t always move people to action. Kim and Jose have learned firsthand that simply “getting an answer” was not enough. And that’s a struggle that continues to frustrate a whole bunch of scientists, especially every time a new coronavirus variant emerges. Many other scientists used to share Kim’s expectation that public health officials would follow the facts and evidence.
Kimberly Prather: And that has not been the case during this pandemic. That has killed me. All evidence points to aerosols, all of it. None, none, zero, zilch, nada points to droplets or surfaces. They’ve been ruled out over time. And we keep saying it and saying it. Every day. We wake up, we say it again.
Attabey: So what can scientists learn from this experience for future public health crises or similar situations?
Jyllian: Jose and Kim have a couple of takeaway lessons for communicating science and communicating around public health.
Jose-Luis Jimenez: Communicating science to people either through talking to journalists or through Twitter, I think has been a very rewarding experience. What has been a less rewarding experience has been trying to communicate with this other field of science or public health or whatever, which is in charge and that will not listen to us.
You know people can demonstrate or post things on Twitter but it takes more coordinated and complex action by scientists who publish papers and then advocate and then do interviews or whatever to end up moving institutions. And I think in this upcoming or continuing battle to try to move the public health institutions, we can use all the support we can get.
Kimberly Prather: I always believed in, like, we have to do more than make the measurements. That we, as scientists, should be delivering the message. This has made me even more of a believer. Once you do it, it’s very rewarding to see that what you’re measuring and what you know can help people. And honestly, with the things that are coming up, like the climate change that is happening around us—right, we see it everywhere—the world needs people to focus on problems that are directly relevant and translate why it’s important that we make change.
Attabey: So we’ve learned that COVID is airborne, and it was and continues to be a battle to get that information communicated to the public to help them protect themselves.
Where do Jose and Kim go from here, especially now that vaccines are available?
Jyllian: Well, they’re not going to stop on COVID messaging. Vaccination is hugely important, of course, but it’s still important to clean up indoor air, especially as large parts of the world remain unvaccinated. They both also noted that we accept a ton of illnesses and death from influenza every year—Jose called it a mini-pandemic—and maybe that’s not the way life has to be. For both of them, the pandemic has inspired some potential new veins of research.
Jose-Luis Jimenez: Before the pandemic, we had been working on indoor air for a while, which ended up being critical, because understanding indoor air was really helpful to try to understand the pandemic and what’s going on. So this has reinforced, kind of, my commitment to, you know, there is a lot to learn about indoor air. So that’s something I want to continue to work on.
Jyllian: Jose also noted that a variety of portable air cleaners have come on the market to address COVID concerns, and he calls many of them “snake oil” because they either don’t do anything or actually make indoor air more hazardous. He wants to collaborate with people to get better information out to the public about these systems. Meanwhile, as we noted earlier, Kim had already been working on whether pathogens from sewage could become airborne and transmit disease. She’s even more committed to that work.
Kimberly Prather: We’ve kind of ignored which pathogens are in the air. We’ve accepted that, you know, we can breathe pathogens into our bodies, directly into our bodies, and that’s OK. We don’t accept that for water. We don’t drink dirty water or pathogen-laden water. We don’t eat bad food. But somehow it’s been OK to breathe these pathogens directly into our lungs where they’re infecting us. So I think I’ve become more passionate about going after this link between infectious disease and how it’s going to become, sadly, more and more of a problem as our climate continues to warm and change.
Jyllian: And now, after many long months fighting the COVID communication battle together on social media, Kim and Jose are actually planning a new project together!
Kim Prather: I’m gonna ask Jose how to build a smog chamber because we’re going to do science together now.
Attabey: And this is actually their first official project together, right?
Jyllian: Yes! They’ve known each other for decades and worked on several of the same field campaigns, but they’ve never collaborated directly. Kim and her colleagues at UC San Diego have something called a wave channel that brings in water from the ocean and allows them to study the aerosols that come out of breaking waves. Jose has long worked with what’s called a smog chamber, which is basically a big bag in which you can control the air to study atmospheric chemistry. Kim wants to work with Jose to integrate a smog chamber into the wave channel and do more controlled studies of how sea-spray aerosols form and evolve in the air.
Attabey: That sounds like an interesting combination of each of their areas of research.
Jyllian: Definitely. And this goes back to what Kim was saying earlier in the episode about being able to forge really useful connections through this work, in spite of the stressful and frustrating circumstances. I don’t know that there can be a silver lining to a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people worldwide, but this might be a tiny one. Jose spoke about this as well.
Jose-Luis Jimenez: I have to say, one of the very positive things of the pandemic has been to get to know and get to work with Kim so closely. Because, you know, before . . . I mean science is big, and we were sometimes participating in the same thing, but now this thing has been like, you know, this shared frustration. It’s like, so we will be communicating by direct message on Twitter at one in the morning like: Did you see that? How can we do that? What can we do? You know, and creatively try to think about, how can we do something about this? How can we. . . you know, that has been . . . that has been great.
Kimberly Prather: I agree you haven’t got rid of me Jose. [Jose laughs]
Attabey: This episode was written by Jyllian Kemsley and produced by Kerri Jansen. Story editing by Michael Torrice and Amanda Yarnell. Production assistance from Gina Vitale. The music in this episode was “Circularity” by Brianna Tam, “Plain Loafer” by Kevin MacLeod, and “Different Kind of Love - Instrumental Version” by Anthony Lazaro.
Stereo Chemistry is the official podcast of Chemical & Engineering News. C&EN is an independent news outlet published by the American Chemical Society. Thanks for listening.