A top US scientist warned Friday that the new coronavirus can be spread through normal breathing, fuelling recommendations that everyone wear masks as several nations posted record death tolls.
With half of humanity under lockdown orders, governments have been racing to find ways to flatten the rise of the virus, which has infected more than one million people around the world.
Anthony Fauci, the veteran US expert who is leading the government’s scientific response, backed recent scholarship that found SARS-CoV-2 can be suspended in the ultrafine mist let out when people exhale.
Fauci, head of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, told Fox News that the guidance on masks would be changed “because of some recent information that the virus can actually be spread even when people just speak, as opposed to coughing and sneezing.”
The World Health Organisation has been more cautious, saying the airborne threat was only known to occur during certain medical treatments, and the United States until now has only advised sick people and their caretakers to cover their faces.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, the coronavirus epicentre of the United States, has recommended that everyone in the nation’s largest city wear masks when going outside.
But with the United States and Europe facing severe shortfalls in protective gear, Fauci and local leaders urged people to save clinical masks for health professionals and patients.
More than 53,000 people have died from Covid-19 since it was first detected late last year in China, and the United States, Spain and Britain.
The United States on Thursday recorded 1,169 Covid-19 fatalities – the highest in one day in any country, according to a tracker at Johns Hopkins University.
Worse may be coming as a quarter of global infections are in the United States, where President Donald Trump has warned of a “very, very painful” first two weeks of April.
Europe reached the dark milestone of 40,000 dead, with Spain on Friday reporting more than 900 deaths in the past 24 hours.
But even while Europe has recorded the most deaths, there were signs the peak there may be passing. Worst-hit Italy recorded 766 new deaths but its infections rose by just four percent, the lowest yet, according to the civil protection service.
Guarded hope also came from Germany, which is credited with containing the virus through especially strict rules such as banning gatherings of more than two people.
“It’s true that the latest figures, as high as they are, give us a little bit of hope, as the growth in new infections is slower than it was a few days ago,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said.
Prosperous countries have borne the brunt of the disease, but there are fears of an explosion among the world’s most vulnerable living in conflict zones or refugee camps.
“The worst is yet to come,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, referring to countries such as Syria, Libya and Yemen. “The Covid-19 storm is now coming to all these theatres of conflict.”