Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Fart of death? British Politicians are allegedly concerned about a case of Covid-19 transmission apparently caused by someone passing wind in an adjacent toilet cubicle.
Ministers ‘fear coronavirus could be spread by farting in a confined space’
Ministers have privately pointed to evidence that suggests Covid-19 could be spread when an infected person breaks wind in a confined space, such as a toilet, it is reported
By Chris Kitching Senior News Reporter
19:28, 24 JUL 2021
Some UK Government ministers have privately expressed concerns that coronavirus could be spread through farting, it is claimed.
They have pointed to evidence that suggests Covid-19 could be spread when an infected person breaks wind in a confined space such as a toilet.
Tests have revealed that the virus can be present in faecal matter, though the science on whether flatulence could spread Covid is not definitive.
One minister, who wasn’t named, told the Telegraph that they had read “credible-looking stuff on it” from other countries, and there had been evidence of a “genomical-linked tracing connection between two individuals from a [lavatory] cubicle in Australia”.
Cov-Sars-2 virus is present in urine and faecal excretions, though it seems to vary between patients – some patients suffer diarrhea and nausea, caused by the virus multiplying in the stomach. However even when present, the viral load in fecal matter appears to be significantly less than the load emitted when someone sneezes or coughs.
Shedding of SARS-CoV-2 in feces and urine and its potential role in person-to-person transmission and the environment-based spread of COVID-19
David L Jones 1, Marcos Quintela Baluja 2, David W Graham 2, Alexander Corbishley 3, James E McDonald 4, Shelagh K Malham 5, Luke S Hillary 4, Thomas R Connor 6, William H Gaze 7, Ines B Moura 8, Mark H Wilcox 9, Kata Farkas 10
The recent detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in feces has led to speculation that it can be transmitted via the fecal-oral/ocular route. This review aims to critically evaluate the incidence of gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, the quantity and infectivity of SARS-CoV-2 in feces and urine, and whether these pose an infection risk in sanitary settings, sewage networks, wastewater treatment plants, and the wider environment (e.g. rivers, lakes and marine waters). A review of 48 independent studies revealed that severe GI dysfunction is only evident in a small number of COVID-19 cases, with 11 ± 2% exhibiting diarrhea and 12 ± 3% exhibiting vomiting and nausea. In addition to these cases, SARS-CoV-2 RNA can be detected in feces from some asymptomatic, mildly- and pre-symptomatic individuals. Fecal shedding of the virus peaks in the symptomatic period and can persist for several weeks, but with declining abundances in the post-symptomatic phase. SARS-CoV-2 RNA is occasionally detected in urine, but reports in fecal samples are more frequent. The abundance of the virus genetic material in both urine (ca. 102-105 gc/ml) and feces (ca. 102-107 gc/ml) is much lower than in nasopharyngeal fluids (ca. 105-1011 gc/ml). There is strong evidence of multiplication of SARS-CoV-2 in the gut and infectious virus has occasionally been recovered from both urine and stool samples. The level and infectious capability of SARS-CoV-2 in vomit remain unknown. In comparison to enteric viruses transmitted via the fecal-oral route (e.g. norovirus, adenovirus), the likelihood of SARS-CoV-2 being transmitted via feces or urine appears much lower due to the lower relative amounts of virus present in feces/urine. The biggest risk of transmission will occur in clinical and care home settings where secondary handling of people and urine/fecal matter occurs. In addition, while SARS-CoV-2 RNA genetic material can be detected by in wastewater, this signal is greatly reduced by conventional treatment. Our analysis also suggests the likelihood of infection due to contact with sewage-contaminated water (e.g. swimming, surfing, angling) or food (e.g. salads, shellfish) is extremely low or negligible based on very low predicted abundances and limited environmental survival of SARS-CoV-2. These conclusions are corroborated by the fact that tens of million cases of COVID-19 have occurred globally, but exposure to feces or wastewater has never been implicated as a transmission vector.
Read more: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32836117/
Of course, most people don’t walk around in public naked – so in a sense we are already wearing butt masks in public, except when we do the business. A 2001 study suggested wearing clothes makes a significant difference to how how much environmental contamination can occur when someone farts.
“It all started with an enquiry from a nurse,” Dr Karl Kruszelnicki told listeners to his science phone-in show on the Triple J radio station in Brisbane. “She wanted to know whether she was contaminating the operating theatre she worked in by quietly farting in the sterile environment during operations, and I realised that I didn’t know. But I was determined to find out.”
Dr Kruszelnicki then described the method by which he had established whether human flatus was germ-laden, or merely malodorous. “I contacted Luke Tennent, a microbiologist in Canberra, and together we devised an experiment. He asked a colleague to break wind directly onto two Petri dishes from a distance of 5 centimetres, first fully clothed, then with his trousers down. Then he observed what happened. Overnight, the second Petri dish sprouted visible lumps of two types of bacteria that are usually found only in the gut and on the skin. But the flatus which had passed through clothing caused no bacteria to sprout, which suggests that clothing acts as a filter.
Lets just say I’m not exactly panicking about the hypothesised flatulence mode of transmission. Sneezing, coughing and surface contamination seem far more likely routes to infection than flatulence, though it seems remotely plausible that the occasional transmission through flatulence may occur.