The ISS Is The Safest Place To Wait Out A Pandemic Thanks To The Common Cold

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Large parts of the globe are doing their bit to slow the spread of COVID-19 by putting their day-to-day lives on hold. People are working from home, having self-isolation parties on their (separate) balconies, and limiting their time in public places to reduce the risk of transmission for both themselves and those who could be worst affected by the disease. The need for social distancing has got people thinking where’s the safest place to wait out the pandemic, and there are some pretty extreme suggestions.

BBC Archives this morning did a throwback to a feature from the 1970s in which we see Bob Wellings winched up to meet the Bates family of the Principality of Sealand. Chances are you’ve probably not heard of Sealand, so for clarity, it’s a micronation in the North Sea situated entirely within the Roughs Tower. With two seven-floor columns, no current long-term residents, and situated about 11 kilometers (7 miles) off the coast of Britain, it’s not a bad spot to hide from COVID-19 (provided you have enough toilet paper).

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One spot that trumps all other self-isolation cribs, according to Luis Zea, a researcher from BioServe Space Technologies at the University of Colorado Boulder, is the ISS. Zea told Newsweek: "I would say that, regarding coronavirus, the ISS is probably one of the safest places to be at this point. This comes from the fact that the novel coronavirus can only survive for short periods of time on surfaces and an infected person would likely be screened and diagnosed during the quarantine period astronauts go through prior to launch."

Aside from being separated from Earth by approximately 408 kilometers (254 miles), the ISS is protected thanks to a health stabilization program that was brought in after the common cold found its way onboard in the late-60s.

In 1968, the Apollo 7 mission launched from the United States with three crew members on board. Upon returning to Earth, team member Walter Schirra got into a disagreement with mission control because he'd contracted rhinovirus, known as the common cold. A head cold is particularly uncomfortable in space, as low gravity conditions mean mucus doesn't drain from the eustachian tubes as it might on Earth. Schirra and the team wanted to land without helmets on so they could hold their noses and blow in an effort to prevent their congested eardrums from perforating on re-entry, a decision mission control was definitely not on board with. In the end, they kept the helmets on as there were safety fears regarding their necks, and with the aid of a decongestant their eardrums survived. 

To prevent future breakdowns in communication due to the mood-sapping effects of pathogens such as the rhinovirus, and, of course, to keep their astronauts comfortable, NASA implemented a “health stabilization” protocol to prevent pathogens from boarding the ISS. Astronauts set to board the station must undergo an extensive physical examination 10 days before their launch, giving blood samples and swabs to search for any existing medical conditions.

If found to be clear, the astronauts enter a two-week isolation period to see if any illnesses are still incubating in their system. For COVID-19, you can transmit the disease but not show symptoms for five days, making this quarantine period crucial for weeding out any hiding illnesses. The same scrutiny is received by packages destined for the orbiting lab, which are thoroughly cleaned and sterilized before being approved for delivery.

The ISS is so safe, in fact, that the launch of the next crew, consisting of NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Anatoli Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, scheduled to launch on April 9, is one of the few events that hasn’t been called off by the pandemic.

So, there you have it. Worried your six-person house share and two bottles of antibacterial gel aren’t cutting the mustard when it comes to self-isolation? Just pop up to the ISS.

Thoroughly depressed by all the COVID-19 chat? Here are 15 good news stories that have nothing to do with coronavirus to remind you not everything is terrible. 

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