New Research Launched on Airborne Virus Transmission in Buildings

Berkeley Lab’s indoor air quality experts to study critical gaps in current knowledge
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
13-May-2020 7:00 AM EDT, by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Newswise — As society prepares to reopen indoor spaces and ease back into some sense of normalcy during the COVID-19 pandemic, a team of researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) is launching a study of the risk of airborne transmission of viruses within buildings and how to mitigate those risks.

“As our leaders develop plans to get people back to work safely, we want to apply our expertise in air movement and contaminant removal to inform guidance,” said Brett Singer, head of Berkeley Lab’s Indoor Environment research group. “We’re trying to understand quantitatively what is the risk level under different scenarios of occupancy when you’re doing, for example, normal ventilation or extra ventilation or extra filtration.”

The team will use a combination of simulations and experiments to study the transport of droplets and aerosols within and between rooms. “A key question is: What is the risk of a building occupant inhaling an infectious virus while in a room or building with one or more infected persons?” said Tom Kirchstetter, director of Berkeley Lab’s Energy Analysis and Environmental Impacts Division, and co-lead with Singer in the research. 

Using computer models to study the fate of aerosols

Previous studies have found that respiratory fluid is expelled not only when a person coughs or sneezes, but also when they talk, sing, or even just breathe. When an infected person emits these respiratory aerosols, they can land directly on people who are close by – which is the primary mode of virus transmission – or fall to the ground or other surfaces. But an as-yet unknown portion of the aerosols will also get mixed into the air in the room and eventually into other rooms in the building, representing a potential additional transmission route. The focus of this research is to assess that risk.

“There’s research now that the novel coronavirus actually is very stable in aerosols. And there is previously published evidence of long-range airborne transmission of other viruses, including the SARS virus in 2003,” said Singer. “Understanding how much virus remains airborne is essential to assessing the risk and identifying effective controls.”

The Berkeley Lab team will use computer models to study the transport and fate of aerosols emitted by an infected person in different configurations of room air distribution. Identifying scenarios where infectious doses could potentially occur in various building types, such as residences, classrooms, nursing homes, restaurants, and offices, will be a priority of the modeling activity. Then the team will conduct physical experiments and use detailed airflow models to examine the impacts of building controls, such as ventilation and filtration, on simulated respiratory fluid dispersion and concentrations.

The experimental work will be conducted in Berkeley Lab’s FLEXLAB(R), the world’s most advanced building simulator and testbed. FLEXLAB is regularly utilized by builders, architects, and government agencies to test ventilation systems and can simulate the most common heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning configurations in commercial buildings. The research teams will also study the use of air-cleaning technologies, including building and room air filters, to reduce exposure risk. The team will not be using the actual SARS-CoV-2 virus for testing. 

The goal of this research is to provide a set of recommendations for building operation that can decrease virus transmission risk, such as ventilation design and operation, and occupancy and occupant behavior, and communicate that information to public health agencies, Singer and Kirchstetter said. These recommendations would complement social distancing and surface cleaning, they added. 

Until this new research has results available, Singer notes that the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has posted a set of resources and guidance.

Calling on Berkeley Lab’s multidisciplinary strengths 

Depending on the research trajectory, the team will collaborate with scientists from Berkeley Lab’s Biosciences, Computing Sciences, and Earth & Environmental Sciences areas, and with public health agencies to expand infection-tracking questionnaires. They will be looking to explore factors such as occupant density, ventilation, air cleaning, and air movement within homes, schools, or businesses that are potential transmission sites. 

What the Berkeley Lab research finds will be relevant not only to the current pandemic but more broadly to other viruses. “The insights generated by this research may be useful for controlling the spread of other respiratory infectious agents that come along in the future,” Kirchstetter said.

Berkeley Lab has a long history of research on energy-efficient buildings and indoor environments, including in ventilation and air cleaning, healthy buildings, and pollutant sources and exposures. “We have a team of really strong indoor air quality scientists that has been doing relevant work for decades, and we have a lot of tools to draw on,” said Kirchstetter. “We’ve studied the transport and fate of many indoor pollutants. A lot of what we know can be directly applied here, and we have experimental facilities that can be configured to simulate air distribution in both commercial and residential buildings.” 

Other key members of the Berkeley Lab team are Michael Sohn, who leads the indoor airflow and pollutant transport research group, and Woody Delp, a mechanical engineer and resident expert on filtration and aerosol movement around buildings. The Berkeley Lab team is actively engaged with researchers around the world, including at UC Berkeley and the California Department of Public Health.

The project is supported by Berkeley Lab’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD) program, in which the Lab directs funding to specific areas of research. Berkeley Lab, like DOE’s other national laboratories, is making COVID-19 research a priority at this time.

# # #

Founded in 1931 on the belief that the biggest scientific challenges are best addressed by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists have been recognized with 13 Nobel Prizes. Today, Berkeley Lab researchers develop sustainable energy and environmental solutions, create useful new materials, advance the frontiers of computing, and probe the mysteries of life, matter, and the universe. Scientists from around the world rely on the Lab’s facilities for their own discovery science. Berkeley Lab is a multiprogram national laboratory, managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit

Filters close

Showing results

110 of 2530
Released: 13-Jul-2020 11:15 AM EDT
UTHealth joins study of blood pressure medication’s effect on improving COVID-19 outcomes
University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

An interventional therapy aimed at improving survival chances and reducing the need for critical care treatment due to COVID-19 is being investigated by physicians at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). The clinical trial is underway at Memorial Hermann and Harris Health System’s Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital.

Newswise: Drug that calms ‘cytokine storm’ associated with 45% lower risk of dying among COVID-19 patients on ventilators
Released: 13-Jul-2020 7:25 AM EDT
Drug that calms ‘cytokine storm’ associated with 45% lower risk of dying among COVID-19 patients on ventilators
Michigan Medicine - University of Michigan

Critically ill COVID-19 patients who received a single dose of a drug that calms an overreacting immune system were 45% less likely to die overall, and more likely to be out of the hospital or off a ventilator one month after treatment, compared with those who didn’t receive the drug, according to a new observational study.

10-Jul-2020 9:00 AM EDT
Long-term strategies to control COVID-19 pandemic must treat health and economy as equally important, argue researchers
University of Cambridge

Strategies for the safe reopening of low and middle-income countries (LMICs) from months of strict social distancing in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic must recognise that preserving people’s health is as important as reviving the economy, argue an international team of researchers.

Released: 10-Jul-2020 3:05 PM EDT
Simple blood test can predict severity of COVID-19 for some patients
University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

An early prognosis factor that could be a key to determining who will suffer greater effects from COVID-19, and help clinicians better prepare for these patients, may have been uncovered by researchers at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). Results of the findings were published today in the International Journal of Laboratory Hematology.

Released: 10-Jul-2020 12:50 PM EDT
Genetic ‘fingerprints’ of first COVID-19 cases help manage pandemic
University of Sydney

A new study published in the world-leading journal Nature Medicine, reveals how genomic sequencing and mathematical modelling gave important insights into the ‘parentage’ of cases and likely spread of the disease in New South Wales.

Released: 10-Jul-2020 12:35 PM EDT
Our itch to share helps spread COVID-19 misinformation
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

To stay current about the Covid-19 pandemic, people need to process health information when they read the news. Inevitably, that means people will be exposed to health misinformation, too, in the form of false content, often found online, about the illness.

Newswise: Pandemic Inspires Framework for Enhanced Care in Nursing Homes
Released: 10-Jul-2020 12:25 PM EDT
Pandemic Inspires Framework for Enhanced Care in Nursing Homes
University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing

As of May 2020, nursing home residents account for a staggering one-third of the more than 80,000 deaths due to COVID-19 in the U.S. This pandemic has resulted in unprecedented threats—like reduced access to resources needed to contain and eliminate the spread of the virus—to achieving and sustaining care quality even in the best nursing homes. Active engagement of nursing home leaders in developing solutions responsive to the unprecedented threats to quality standards of care delivery is required.

Newswise: General Electric Healthcare Chooses UH to Clinically 
Evaluate First-of-its-kind Imaging System
Released: 10-Jul-2020 12:15 PM EDT
General Electric Healthcare Chooses UH to Clinically Evaluate First-of-its-kind Imaging System
University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center

University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center physicians completed evaluation for the GE Healthcare Critical Care Suite, and the technology is now in daily clinical practice – flagging between seven to 15 collapsed lungs per day within the hospital. No one on the team could have predicted the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but this technology and future research with GEHC may enhance the capability to improve care for COVID-19 patients in the ICU. Critical Care Suite is now assisting in COVID and non-COVID patient care as the AMX 240 travels to intensive care units within the hospital.

Released: 10-Jul-2020 11:50 AM EDT
COVID-19 Can Be Transmitted in the Womb, Reports Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal
Wolters Kluwer Health: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins

A baby girl in Texas – born prematurely to a mother with COVID-19 – is the strongest evidence to date that intrauterine (in the womb) transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) can occur, reports The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, the official journal of The European Society for Paediatric Infectious Diseases. The journal is published in the Lippincott portfolio by Wolters Kluwer.

Showing results

110 of 2530