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How Would a Viral Outbreak Be Handled in Space

As Covid-19 spreads across the globe, it’s interesting to think about how NASA would handle a viral outbreak in space.  In fact, there have been rare occasions that astronauts have fallen ill while on a mission.  The question is, how did NASA handle these situations, what’s changed since then, and how will this affect future missions in space?

Crew of the Apollo 7

Indeed, throughout spaceflight history, there have been astronauts that have endured upper respiratory infections, colds, urinary tract infections, and skin infections.   During the Apollo 7 mission in 1968, Cmdr. Wally Schirra most likely came aboard with a mild cold and ended up spreading it to other crew members.  This resulted in crew members running out of medication and tissues.  They even refused to wear their helmets while reentering Earth’s atmosphere.

This wasn’t the only time this occurred.  Similar occurrences happened during both the Apollo 8 and Apollo 9 flights.

It was because of these three outbreaks that NASA implemented a pre-flight quarantine.  This called for limited, monitored contact with other people in an effort to ensure the health and safety of the crew.

Colds are one thing, but what about serious medical issues?

Well, an unidentified astronaut once experienced a blood clot in the jugular vein of their neck.  However, due to improvements in technology and their ability to remotely access medical assistance from space, doctors were able to assess the available medical supply and prescribe a blood thinner, Enoxaparin, for 40 days.  On the 43rd day, a supply of Apixaban arrived via a cargo resupply ship.  Over a 90-day period, the astronaut was able to perform ultrasounds on their own neck under the guidance of a radiology team on Earth.  When the spaceflight team arrived back on Earth after their six-month mission, the blood clot required no further treatment.

The way viruses and infections spread on Earth is very different than in space.

In space, changes in stress hormone levels and other effects of spaceflight cause the immune system to change.  An astronaut with a good immune system on Earth may become more susceptible to illness or allergic reactions while in space.

Viruses such as the flu could also be more easily transmitted in a microgravity environment.  With the absence of gravity, particles that have been sneezed or coughed into the open area wouldn’t settle down, making them easier to be transmitted.  To prevent this from happening, compartments are ventilated and the HEPA filters would help remove the particles from the air.

In addition, dormant viruses could react to the stresses of spaceflight, reactivating and flaring up.

It would be hard to implement a quarantine on the ISS or future lunar and/or Martian habitats.  With the case of an upper respiratory infection, the astronaut would be quarantined to their sleep quarter while being symptomatic.  They would wear a mask for containment and routinely have cultures done to identify the sickness for appropriate treatment.  It is likely that in any future spaceflights, astronauts would routinely wipe down surfaces as well as monitor for microbes.  In addition, the U.S. segment of the ISS has HEPA filters that strain out particulates in the air.

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