National Sun Yat-sen University’s Aerosol Science Research Center – Unique in Asia, Helping Fight the Pandemic and Protect Air Quality

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With the COVID-19 pandemic now in its second year, the entire world remains under threat. Director Chia C. Wang of National Sun Yat-sen University’s Aerosol Science Research Center, alongside aerosol scholars from the United States and Israel, jointly published a research paper that pointed out how aerosols are the main way through which COVID-19 is spread, rather than through droplets or contact transmission as previously believed. This paper has been published in the internationally authoritative journal , Science. The team from the research center also designed a popular science aerosol comic book that has been translated into 20 languages by researchers from many countries, and has received great feedback on social media.

National Sun Yat-sen University's Aerosol Science Research Center is the only research center in Asia that focuses on aerosols. The director of the center, Chia C. Wang, sat for an exclusive interview with the MOST Center for Global Affairs and Science Engagement, in which she introduced the effects of aerosols on the environment and human health, and scientific evidence on how respiratory viruses are transmitted in the air through aerosols.

The only aerosol research center in Asia

Air pollution is a major issue that the world is facing today. Wang explains that “aerosol” is a general term for fine particles suspended in the air. Of possible aerosols, PM2.5 (aerosols with an aerodynamic diameter of less than 2.5 microns) has a tremendous impact on the earth’ s environmental ecology, climate, and public health 

In 2016, the National Sun Yat-sen University established the Aerosol Science Research Center, the only such center in Asia. The mission of the Center is to integrate disciplines such as physics, chemistry, biomedicine, public health, environmental engineering, marine science, and education; through this interdisciplinary approach, the Center addresses current air pollution and the harmful impacts of PM2.5 on the global ecology and human health, develops technologies and a circular economy that is friendlier to the environment and ecology , and develops PM2.5 preventive medicine.

Wang points out that although PM2.5 aerosol particles in air pollution are harmful to the human body, aerosols can also be used as a novel method of drug delivery in biomedicine. It allows patients to inhale and effectively deliver drugs to the lungs. Wang’s research team is developing a new type of aerosol drug to alleviate chronic hypoxia in hypoxic diseases. The drug is now in the animal testing stage, and has been awarded seven patents in Taiwan and the United States.

Local connection to safeguard air quality

Kaohsiung is a major city for heavy industry in Taiwan, and industrial emissions have become the main source of PM2.5 pollution in Kaohsiung. The Aerosol Science Research Center collaborates with local industries to assist heavy industry in developing novel PM2.5 monitoring and emission reduction technologies to reduce PM2.5 emissions. The Aerosol Science Research Center has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Port of Kaohsiung (Taiwan International Ports Corporation, Ltd.) on several aspects of cooperation - including air quality and PM2.5 characteristics in the port area, and scientific studies on marine aerosols, in the hope of protecting the air quality of the port. Currently, the Research Center is the only center in Taiwan to have successfully developed so many cutting-edge aerosol technologies. These technologies include aerosol photoelectron spectroscopy, temporal resolution aerosol infrared spectroscopy, aerosol Raman optical tweezers, and aerosol LIDAR telemetering equipment. The Center also has the nation’s first real-time PM2.5 automatic monitoring facility and a single particle aerosol mass spectrometer, both located close to a harbor. With these latest emission source analysis technologies, the Center hopes to provide effective strategies for reducing emission.

In addition to deeply fulfilling the university’s local social responsibility, the Aerosol Science Research Center also actively conducts international academic exchanges. They collaborate closely with international aerosol research teams such as the University of California in San Diego, the University of Toronto, the University of Rostock in Germany, and the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology. This year, the Center has also collaborated with international partners to publish a paper in the authoritative international journal , Science. The published paper has received attention from 70 international media outlets, including the  New York Times.

Paper + Comics to explain the corona aerosol

This transnational research paper systematically reviewed scientific evidence to show that a variety of common respiratory viruses are transmitted in the air through aerosols, including the SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV, and H1N1 influenza viruses. It fully explains the scientific mechanism of how the viruses spread through aerosol, including how they are generated, how they are transmitted in the environment, the mechanism through which they settle after entering the human body, and the locations in which they settle. The article also proposes a number of effective pandemic prevention measures to prevent the spread of aerosols.

Director Wang points out that aerosol transmission is actually the main mode of transmission for many respiratory viruses, and the World Health Organization has already officially recognized that aerosol transmission is a major transmission route of COVID-19. Compared with droplets, not only do aerosols linger longer in the air longer (up to several hours), but they can also spread farther than the current standard of 1 to 2 meters in social distancing. In particular, virus aerosols measuring less than 5 microns can directly cross the nasopharynx and upper respiratory tract to reach the bronchioles and even the alveoli in the deeper parts of the lungs, and escape detection by current nasopharyngeal specimen swabs.

To help more people understand how viruses spread through aerosol, Wang collaborated with illustrators to create a series of lively and interesting popular science comics in the comic book entitled "The Quest of the Virosols". The comic book helps the public understand the characteristics of virus aerosols so that they can better protect themselves. After its publication on the research center’s website and social media, the comic book received tremendous response. Within 24 hours, there were thousands of shares on social media. More unexpectedly, scholars from many countries wrote for permission to translate the comic book into their language. Currently, the comic book is already available in 20 languages, including English, Spanish, Russian, French, German, Indonesian, Thai, Japanese, Dutch, and Tagalog. 

Wang states that, as a top international journal, Science’s vast readership comprises scientists and professionals in medicine and public health. Transforming an academic paper into an approachable comic book helps to convey in-depth knowledge in easy-to-understand ways, making the knowledge accessible to the general public and young students. Wang emphasized that the Aerosol Science Research Center is not only committed to developing cutting-edge aerosol technology and opening up new research fields; the Center is also shouldering the task of sharing science and technology, and fulfilling its university social responsibility. Only by enhancing the environmental awareness and science literacy of the entire public can we re-establish a harmonious co-existence between the environment and people and achieve sustainable development of the environment.

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