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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Testing buildings — not just people — could be an important way to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Why it matters: People won't feel safe returning to schools, offices, bars and restaurants unless they can be assured they won't be infected by coronavirus particles lingering in the air — or being pumped through the buildings' air ducts. One day, even office furniture lined with plants could be used to clean air in cubicles.

The big picture: Prodded by more than 200 scientists, the World Health Organization now acknowledges there is emerging evidence of airborne transmission in crowded or poorly ventilated settings.

  • In Florida, Texas and other Sun Belt states, a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases has been linked to air-conditioned bars, house parties and other large gatherings.
  • The virus thrives indoors in both heated and cooled environments if the humidity is below 40%, scientists say.

Driving the news: New research from the University of Oregon, in partnership with the University of California-Davis, suggests heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems could be contributing to the spread of the disease in health care facilities.

  • There are some fairly easy fixes, like installing more sophisticated air filters, drawing more fresh air into buildings and cranking up the humidity, which tends to kill the virus.
  • But when it's extremely hot or cold outside, some of these measures could overwhelm HVAC systems, ventilation experts say.

Environmental testing could provide early warnings of an outbreak, says Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, director of the Institute for Health in the Built Environment at the University of Oregon.

A biotech startup called Enviral Tech teamed up with his lab to conduct weekly tests of 52 long-term care facilities in a half-dozen states in the Pacific Northwest. At least four showed signs of the virus.

  • Springs Living, an assisted living center in Portland, detected the virus in an air duct three weeks into the pilot, after showing no signs in the previous tests.
  • The management quickly tested all residents and staff, and found a handful of positive cases, though none of the individuals showed symptoms until five days later.
  • They were quarantined while the building and HVAC system were thoroughly cleaned. No other cases developed and everyone survived.
  • "We had a five-day head start" on the outbreak, said Springs Living CEO Fee Stubblefield, whose company is running similar tests at all 18 of its facilities.

How it works: Using Enviral Tech's test kits, building managers can collect up to four samples from various surfaces in a building, including duct work.

  • The swabs are placed in a designated tube, and mailed overnight to its Eugene, Ore., lab for analysis, with results in 24 hours or less.
  • The kits cost $300 each, or about $225 by weekly subscription, says Enviral Tech CEO Shula Jaron.
  • "Testing your building is really the key to restarting the engine of the economy," says Van Den Wymelenberg.

What to watch: His lab is designing micro-environments that could provide office workers with their own supply of fresh air.

  • HyPhy is a twist on the traditional office cubicle: it's a personal clean air pod that integrates a fern called Azolla into the furniture to provide personalized air circulation and purification.
  • The plants, when treated with ultraviolet lights under the desk, may help kill pathogens while pumping localized fresh air into the breathing zone of the cubicle's occupant.

Go deeper

The next wave of the coronavirus is gaining steam

Expand chart
Data: The COVID Tracking Project; Map: Naema Ahmed/Axios

The percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive is rising across the country, including in states that are also seeing a spike in cases.

Why it matters: High positivity rates indicate a worsening outbreak, and put together with the rise in cases and hospitalizations across the country, suggest that the U.S. is in bad shape.

DOJ seizes 36 U.S. website domains for Iranian government disinformation

Iran's President-Elect Ebrahim Raisi holds a press conference at Shahid Beheshti conference hall in Tehran on Monday. Photo: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

American officials seized 36 news website domains linked to Iran's government for spreading disinformation as part of a propaganda campaign, the Department of Justice said Tuesday.

Why it matters: The action comes at a time of heightened tension between the two countries, with Iran's hardline President-elect Ebrahim Raisi on Monday ruling out negotiating over missiles or meeting with President Biden as the two nations hold talks on returning Tehran to the 2015 nuclear deal.

NYT: Khashoggi's killers had paramilitary training in U.S.

A vigil for journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, following his killing in 2018 in Turkey. Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Several Saudis who took part in the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi had paramilitary training in the U.S. under a State Department contract a year before his 2018 death, the New York Times reported Tuesday.

Why it matters: While there's no evidence the department knew that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sanctioned Saudi officials to detain, kidnap and torture dissidents in 2017, the approval of such training underscores how "intensely intertwined" the U.S. has become with a nation known for human rights abuses, per the NYT.