Groundbreaking Study Aims to Understand Respiratory Virus Transmission
By Amy Reiter
Photo by Tom Jemski, UMSOM Public Affairs
In the hallways of a downtown Baltimore hotel, University of Maryland School of Public Health researchers and colleagues from the University of Maryland School of Medicine are breaking new ground in a first-of-its-kind study that aims to learn how the flu is transmitted. Do you get it when a person with the virus coughs on you? Touches you? Or maybe it’s floating in the air, waiting to be inhaled by a new friendly host.
“Nobody has successfully observed influenza transmission under controlled conditions. It has never been done,” said Don Milton, M.D., a professor in Maryland Institute of Applied Environmental Health. “Until we can observe transmission and see how it really happened in real time, we don't know for sure how it works.”
To find out, researchers have recruited healthy volunteers to spend up to two weeks in a closed-off floor of a hotel, where they will be exposed to the flu while doing activities like playing cards with flu-infected people recruited from the community, including the UMD campus. The sick volunteers will be compensated up to $1,900 for their efforts.
The trials started last month, with a new quarantine cohort taking up residence in the hotel later this week. The researchers plan to continue running the hotel-based experiment for up to three subsequent winter flu seasons after the current one.
While the space has many hotel hallmarks (hello, neatly made bed!), it’s also set up for research, outfitted with devices to measure the amount of virus particles in exhaled air and to test devices like UV lights and air filters to see if purifying the air we breathe can keep flu viruses from spreading.
The researchers aimed for a close replica of real-life flu-catching conditions in the $15 million study funded by the National Institutes of Health. “These things happen all the time when we get together for the holidays, when we get together for meals, and other social groups,” said Dr. Wilbur Chen, the study’s lead collaborator from the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
“We just need to be able to capture it and monitor it very closely while on the quarantine unit,”
His body of research helped spur a rethinking during the COVID-19 pandemic of the role of lingering, virus-containing “aerosols” in illness transmission, and he has a hypothesis: “The virus is mainly spread by breathing air contaminated with viruses, And if that turns out to be true, we can take action to prevent flu—and potentially other viruses—by improving air quality in public places, like schools and religious meeting houses, along with in homes.”
For this critical work, the researchers need help recruiting more sick volunteers: people between ages 18-59 who have just begun the flu, with a fever and other symptoms. Those interested in joining the trial can call 410.706.8800 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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