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Could Chalk Stop the Spread of COVID-19?

Researchers have begun to publish early results regarding the novel coronavirus and climbing chalk

As climbing gyms establish regulations to protect their communities from the pandemic, researchers are coming together to better understand the relationship between climbing chalk and the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

At the onset of the coronavirus crisis, the Association of British Climbing Walls (ABC) set up working groups to support climbing facilities through the pandemic. David and Robert Stevens from the Warehouse Climbing Wall in Gloucester approached ABC Chair, Rich Emerson, as they had a relationship with a research team in De Montfort University. Emerson spoke with Jeremy Wilson, a leader of one of the ABC working groups responsible for researching the science behind the virus and climbing.

According to a press release from the ABC, “We needed to understand the potential impact of chalk on the virus as there were some concerns within the climbing community around how chalk on holds may act as a reservoir of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Between us, we commissioned the team at De Montfort University to undertake the research, led by Dr Katie Laird (Head of the Infectious Disease Research Group), Dr Maitreyi Shivkumar (Virologist) and Dr Lucy Owen (Postdoctoral Researcher). The team admit it was novel research and it took some time to set up the test method protocols.”

As this is a pioneering study, there is still more work to be done, but so far the results have been positive. A model coronavirus for SARS-CoV-2, human coronavirus OC43, was used for the experiments. The press release said, “The presence of infectious virus on a plastic surface dusted with chalk was monitored over the course of one hour. The results indicated that the amount of infectious virus was reduced by around 99% immediately upon contact with the chalky surfaces. By comparison, the control test where no chalk dust was present, showed only a slight decline in infectious virus over these time periods.”

A 99 per cent reduction immediately following contact with chalky surfaces could mean a great deal for indoor and outdoor climbing. However, without confirmation from other researchers, or the full report in hand, it is difficult to draw legitimate conclusions. Even still, it is exciting to see that people are willing to come together across multiple organizations in an effort to find a solution that could ultimately benefit climbers during and following the pandemic. Hopefully this study will inspire critics so that a legitimate conclusion can be reached. To that effect, an additional study using the actual SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus would be useful. Unfortunately, as a virus with a biosafety level (BSL) of 3, it is difficult for researchers to access this virus outside of high-grade BSL-3 facilities.

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In an updated statement, Emerson said, “These results look fantastic and show chalk could once again be the climber’s best friend. We hope that it will provide comfort to our customers as they return to climbing at indoor walls. We will not lessen all our other COVID-safe measures such as regular hand sanitisation and social distancing but this extra factor should temper fears that chalky handholds could be vectors of the disease. We await the formal scientific report with anticipation.”

The climbing community now awaits the full report which should be published in early August.