KUWAIT: The ministry of health announced yesterday the first death case from the novel coronavirus, while 62 fresh cases were reported in the last 24 hours. This brings the country’s tally of confirmed virus cases up to 479, the ministry’s spokesman Dr Abdullah Al-Sanad told KUNA. The ministry announced the deceased was a 46-year-old Indian man who was in the intensive care unit and had been receiving treatment for several days. Earlier in the day, Minister of Health Sheikh Dr Basel Al-Sabah announced the recovery of 11 people from the novel coronavirus, raising the country’s total recoveries to 93.

Director of Al-Amiri Hospital Dr Ali Alalanda said on Friday that the postmortem examination of an Indian who died on Thursday revealed that he had been infected with COVID-19. However, linking his death to the coronavirus infection will be determined by the World Health Organization, Alalanda said in a statement to KUNA. The 60-year-old resident, whose body was brought to the hospital, had died due to a cardiac arrest, but a medical examination and swab test conducted in line with a recommendation by WHO showed that he was infected with the coronavirus, Dr Alalanda said.

The deceased neither had symptoms of the contagious disease nor visited any hospital recently, he said. Immediately after registering this case, concerned personnel scrambled to take measures and examine persons who had been in contact with the deceased. They also completed the quarantine of the building where he lived, the hospital director added. This building had been quarantined due to discovering suspected coronavirus cases there. Dr Alalanda affirmed the ministry of health’s transparency policy, reiterating that the public will be informed about any fresh development concerning the pandemic.

China paid homage yesterday to victims of the coronavirus in the place where the global pandemic began, as Americans were warned to wear masks amid fears the disease can be spread by breathing. The advice came as America logged another huge rise in its death toll – almost 1,500 in one day – and as new infections continued unabated. Since COVID-19 emerged late last year, around 1.1 million people have fallen ill. Almost 60,000 people have died.

China, which appears to be over the worst of its outbreak, yesterday held a national day of mourning for its dead – well over 3,000 people have died since the virus emerged there late last year. Cars, trains and ships sounded their horns, and air-raid sirens wailed, as flags were flown at half-staff from 10 am (0200 GMT).

While there are signs of normality returning in some parts of China as movement restrictions are eased, large swathes of the world remain in dire straits. Europe accounts for the lion’s share of the dead, with Italy and Spain bearing the brunt. But the situation is rapidly deteriorating in the United States, and President Donald Trump’s administration on Friday suggested widespread use of simple masks or scarves might help stem the rocketing infection rate.

“It’s going to be really a voluntary thing,” Trump said. “You don’t have to do it and I’m choosing not to do it, but some people may want to do it and that’s okay.” Anthony Fauci, head of infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health, cited “recent information that the virus can actually be spread even when people just speak as opposed to coughing and sneezing.”

Fauci’s comments come after the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) sent a letter to the White House on April 1 that summarized recent research on the subject. It said that though the research isn’t yet conclusive, “the results of available studies are consistent with aerosolization of virus from normal breathing.” Until now, US health agencies have said that the primary pathway of transmission is respiratory droplets, about one millimeter in diameter, expelled by sick people when they sneeze or cough.

These quickly fall to the ground around a meter away. But if the virus can be suspended in the ultrafine mist we expel when we exhale, in other words an aerosol, it becomes much harder to prevent its spread, which in turn is an argument in favor of everyone covering their faces.

A recent NIH funded study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the SARS-CoV-2 virus could become an aerosol and remain airborne for up to three hours. This triggered a debate even as critics said the findings were overblown because the team behind the study used a medical device called a nebulizer to deliberately create a viral mist and argued this would not occur naturally.

The NAS letter pointed to preliminary research by the University of Nebraska Medical Center that found the genetic code of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, its RNA, were found in hard to reach areas of patients’ isolation rooms. The NAS scientists also pointed to two other studies – both not yet peer reviewed – from Hong Kong and from mainland China.

The Hong Kong researchers collected viral samples from patients with the coronavirus and other viral respiratory illnesses, and gave some of the patients face masks. The masks reduced the detection of both droplets and aerosols for coronavirus patients. The Chinese paper on the other hand raised concerns that personal protective gear used by healthcare workers could itself be a source of airborne virus.

The team studied hospitals in Wuhan and found that there were two major areas where the virus was aerosolized: The bathrooms of patients, and rooms where medical staff removed their protective gear. This may be because doffing protective gear causes the particles to get re-suspended in the air. Even if these particles are not of breathable size, they could settle on people’s hands and bodies, the NAS panel said.

So far, the World Health Organization (WHO) has been more cautious on the airborne threat. In an analysis published on March 29, it wrote that aerosol transmission was only known to occur during particular medical treatments that required assisted breathing. On the recent preliminary research, such as the University of Nebraska’s paper, the WHO cautioned that the detection of the virus’ genetic code in patient’s rooms did not necessarily amount to viable amounts of the pathogen that could be transmitted onward.

The World Health Organization has been more cautious, saying the airborne threat was only known to occur during certain medical treatments. The US recommendation will likely worsen an already severe shortage of masks in the United States and Europe, which both rely heavily on imports from China. Officials in New York, the worst affected part of the US, began advising people to wear masks some days ago, and there were signs on the streets that the advice was being heeded.

Around 278,000 Americans have tested positive for the disease, and the infection curve shows no sign of flattening, despite nine in 10 citizens living under some sort of lockdown. Field hospitals are sprouting in convention centers, sports arenas and parking lots all over the country as states gird for an expected influx of patients.

Europe’s awful death toll hit 40,000 on Friday, with Spain reporting more than 900 deaths in 24 hours. But there were also signs the peak may have hit on the continent. Hardest-hit Italy recorded 766 new deaths but its infections rose by just four percent, the lowest yet, according to the civil protection service. “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,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, where strict social distancing measures are credited with curbing the spread.

There was, however, yet another warning over the fate of the less developed world, especially conflict zones or places with large refugee populations. “The worst is yet to come,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, referring to countries such as Syria, Libya and Yemen. “The COVID-19 storm is now coming to all these theaters of conflict.” The world economy has been pummelled by the virus and associated lockdowns, with millions more people signing on for unemployment payments in the US.