Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development

MEDIA - Press office ENEA
pollution and covid

Health: Strong correlation between particulate matter and Covid virus

An ENEA/University of Rome Tor Vergata study has highlighted a positive association between atmospheric particulate matter (PM2.5) and the Spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for Covid. Its findings, which describe the interaction between fine dust and the virus through molecular dynamics simulations performed with the CRESCO6 supercomputer, were published in the online journal “Science of The Total Environment” as part of the Pulvirus project.

 “During the first pandemic wave Lombardy and in general the entire Po Valley area were the hardest hit areas of the Country. As they rank among the most air polluted parts of Italy this has led the scientific community to suggest a possible role of particulate matter in the spread of the virus", explained Caterina Arcangeli, researcher at the ENEA Health and the Environment Laboratory and co-author of the study with Barbara Benassi, Massimo Santoro and Milena Stracquadanio and researchers at the Department of Biology of the University of Rome Tor Vergata Alice Romeo, Federico Iacovelli and Mattia Falconi.

The study investigated the possible presence of the genome of the Covid-19 virus on at least 50% of the PM2.5 filter samples collected in the city of Bologna in the winter of 2021.

 “We then created simplified molecular models of PM2.5 and SARS-CoV-2 on the computer and studied their interaction using high-performance simulations with CRESCO6 supercomputer,” said Arcangeli. The simulations clearly showed that the glycans (sugars) present on the surface of the Spike protein play an important role in the interaction between viruses and particulate matter, mediating direct contact with the corresponding surface of the carbon core of PM2.5.

Furthermore, the study also shows a close correlation between PM2.5 and the virus also regarding the chemical characteristics of particulate matter, whose elemental carbon content appears to have a guiding function in the interaction with SARS-CoV-2.

 “Although the affinity between PM2.5 and SARS-CoV-2 appears plausible, the simulation does not allow us to assess whether these interactions are sufficiently stable to carry the virus in the air or whether the virion retains its  infectiousness after transport. The possibility that the virus could be 'captured' by Particulate Matter with a consequent reduction in infectivity and diffusion, or inactivated by this strong interaction with particulate matter cannot be excluded", said the researcher.

A key strength of the simulations studies conducted is the ability to model different types of particulate matter, with varying concentrations and chemical composition of air pollutants. These simulations can be a useful tool for quickly evaluating possible interactions of fine particles with viruses, bacteria or other important cellular targets. “This could prove useful to contain or control the spread of future airborne diseases in highly polluted regions and provide useful information for developing air pollution control plans,” concluded Arcangeli.

For more information please contact:

Caterina Arcangeli, ENEA - Health and the Environment Laboratory,