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Model inspired by search for extra-terrestrial life calculates risk of COVID-19 transmission

Credit: Marissa Lanterman / Johns Hopkins University

What are the chances of finding advanced civilizations beyond Earth? In 1961, astronomer Frank Drake developed a mathematical formula to estimate the probability of finding intelligent aliens in the Milky Way. His simple equation, consisting of only seven variables, stimulated new discussion about an otherwise puzzling phenomenon. Decades later, his famous formula continues to influence the search for extra-terrestrial life in the universe.

Inspired by the Drake equation, fluid mechanics experts from the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering have developed a formula to answer the question of the moment: What determines someone’s chances of catching COVID-19?

In a paper published in the Physics of Fluids, the researchers present a to estimate the risk of airborne transmission of COVID-19. Insights from this new model could help assess how well preventative efforts, like mask-wearing and social distancing, are protecting us in different transmission scenarios.

“There’s still much confusion about the transmission pathways of COVID-19. This is partly because there is no common ‘language’ that makes it easy to understand the involved,” says Rajat Mittal, co-author of the paper and a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “What really needs to happen for one to get infected? If we can visualize this process more clearly and in a quantitative manner, we can make better decisions about which activities to resume and which to avoid.”

What’s becoming clear is that COVID-19 is most commonly spread from person to person through the air, via small respiratory droplets generated by coughing, sneezing, talking, or breathing, according to a commentary published by 239 scientists in Clinical Infectious Diseases.

But the risk of getting infected with COVID-19 depends heavily on the circumstances, Mittal says. The team’s model considers 10 transmission variables, including the

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