Scientists discover the stability of COVID-19 on surfaces and aerosols

The virus responsible for the emergence of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is able to survive several hours, even days in aerosols and on surfaces. This finding comes in response to the worldwide effort to characterise the novel virus and determine its way of working.

Scientists from Princeton University, UCLA, Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Heath have put their heads together to determine the lifespan of the virus in different scenarios, in hope that it may shine a light on how it is able to spread so quickly.

The researchers investigated the stability of viral particles in aerosols, copper, cardboard, plastic and stainless steel. They were able to detect traces of the virus in aerosols for up to three hours, four hours on copper, 24hrs on cardboard and up to 3 days on plastic and stainless steel. This kind of stability is comparable to the original severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus which broke in 2002 and 2004 and caused highly contagious and life-threatening pneumonia. After large efforts to isolate cases and trace back contacts, the virus was successfully contained and no cases have been reported in over 15 years. Unfortunately, the reason why we were able to contain SARS, and are failing this time with a virus displaying such similar stability, is still unclear.

The new information is key to understanding the transmissibility of the virus, as it suggests people may become infected through breathing in viral particles in the air and touching contaminated surfaces. What may be the case, is that people infected with COVID-19 are spreading the virus whilst asymptomatic, or before symptoms occur. The role of asymptomatic transmission, as well as pre-symptomatic transmission is still unknown, however if we are to base our estimates on the previous SARS virus, the incubation period within which someone may be infectious prior to symptoms can range from 2-14 days. If this is the case, someone who seems healthy may be touching surfaces and unknowingly contributing to disease spread. This would make previous disease control measures against SARS ineffective against COVID-19.

Now that we know the stability of COVID-19 in the air and on surfaces, we can implement measures to protect ourselves and the community from infection. First and foremost, wash your hands for the recommended 20 seconds using soap and warm water. You should also disinfect frequently touched objects, and limit touching surfaces outside of your home e.g. in a supermarket. Refrain from touching your eyes, nose and mouth when outside or without washing your hands beforehand. Even if you feel well, you should lower your chances of exposure to the virus and only step outdoors when necessary. Remember your duty to the community – do not assume you are virus-free if you are not showing symptoms. We must all play our part in this fight against the COVID-19.

References:

1. Neeltje van Doremalen, Trenton Bushmaker, Dylan H. Morris, Myndi G. Holbrook, Amandine Gamble, Brandi N. Williamson, Azaibi Tamin, Jennifer L. Harcourt, Natalie J. Thornburg, Susan I. Gerber, James O. Lloyd-Smith, Emmie de Wit, Vincent J. Munster. Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1. New England Journal of Medicine, 2020; DOI: 10.1056/NEJMc2004973

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