Understanding the factors that influence the airborne survival of viruses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in aerosols is important for identifying routes of transmission and the value of various mitigation strategies for preventing transmission. We present measurements of the stability of SARS-CoV-2 in aerosol droplets (∼5 to 10 µm equilibrated radius) over timescales spanning 5 s to 20 min using an instrument to probe survival in a small population of droplets (typically 5 to 10) containing ∼1 virus/droplet. Measurements of airborne infectivity change are coupled with a detailed physicochemical analysis of the airborne droplets containing the virus. A decrease in infectivity to ∼10% of the starting value was observable for SARS-CoV-2 over 20 min, with a large proportion of the loss occurring within the first 5 min after aerosolization. The initial rate of infectivity loss was found to correlate with physical transformation of the equilibrating droplet; salts within the droplets crystallize at relative humidities (RHs) below 50%, leading to a near-instant loss of infectivity in 50 to 60% of the virus. However, at 90% RH, the droplet remains homogenous and aqueous, and the viral stability is sustained for the first 2 min, beyond which it decays to only 10% remaining infectious after 10 min. The loss of infectivity at high RH is consistent with an elevation in the pH of the droplets, caused by volatilization of CO2 from bicarbonate buffer within the droplet. Four different variants of SARS-CoV-2 were compared and found to have a similar degree of airborne stability at both high and low RH.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e2200109119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number27
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jul 2022


  • Aerosolized Particles and Droplets/chemistry
  • COVID-19/transmission
  • Humans
  • Humidity
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • SARS-CoV-2/isolation & purification


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