Sing into the funnel please: inside the Covid-19 lab hoping to declare singing safe

Britain’s 40,000 choirs have all been silenced, brass and woodwind players too. We meet the scientists racing to find out exactly how dangerous blowing instruments and singing are

Declan Costello, an ear, nose and throat surgeon with an interest in voice disorders and a side career as a tenor, is looking back on the year. “Six months ago, if you’d said, ‘You’re not going to be doing any clinical work or singing, and your mates who are professional singers are going to be driving Tesco vans instead, and you’re going to be in an orthopaedic theatre on a Sunday morning watching flutes being played into funnels’, I would have thought you were mad.”

Early in the year, Costello also learned “some rudimentary intensive care skills” and developed and crowdfunded a novel piece of PPE to shield healthcare workers from infection during the intubation process. But that is a story for another day.

On this particular Sunday morning in July we are indeed in an operating theatre, in a London clinic, dressed in scrubs. No one’s on the operating table, though. Instead, Sue Thomas, a flautist and piccolo player with the London Philharmonic, is playing Happy Birthday into devices that are measuring the size and number of droplets and aerosol particles she generates. Around her hover similarly dressed researchers led by aerosol specialist Jonathan Reid, professor of chemistry at Bristol University. As Thomas plays, they carefully reposition the funnels and take measurements.

All of this is to discover how dangerous singing and playing woodwind and brass instruments are in the spread of Covid-19. Serious outbreaks of the virus were linked to choirs from countries including South Korea and the Netherlands this spring. Most notable was the terrible case of a choir rehearsal in Skagit County, Washington state, on 10 March. Out of 61 attending practice, 52 people fell ill. Two died.

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