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More people are staying indoors to avoid contact with people potentially infected by Covid-19. But in light of a recent report from the US’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that said RNA from the virus that causes Covid-19 was found in the Diamond Princess ship 17 days after its passengers had left, what are the risks of handling packages, groceries and what scientists call “high-touch” surfaces?
Like the other 200 or so respiratory viruses we know of, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the new coronavirus, infects the cells of our airways.
It causes a range of signs and symptoms, or none at all. It can spread easily from person-to-person and can be coughed into the air and onto surfaces.
Viruses only replicate inside a living cell - outside the cell, they’re on a path to either infect us or their own destruction. How long a virus survives outside a cell varies.
The new coronavirus can live in the air for several hours and on some surfaces for as long as two to three days, tests by the U.S. government and other scientists have found.
Their work, published last month, doesn't prove that anyone has been infected through breathing it from the air or by touching contaminated surfaces, researchers stress.
"We're not by any way saying there is an aerosolized transmission of the virus," but this work shows that the virus stays viable for long periods in those conditions, so it's theoretically possible, said study leader Neeltje van Doremalen at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
One of the most terrifying things about the new coronavirus is how rapidly, and seemingly easily, it can spread. Experts are still learning about how the virus is transmitted, but according to the CDC, it’s believed that it spreads primarily through respiratory droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. However, there are also reports that the coronavirus can live on surfaces for days.
As of Wednesday afternoon, there were at least 59,502 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., though researchers have warned that for every confirmed case, five to ten additional people may be infected with the virus. At this point, we know we should be staying at home, and at least six feet away from anyone we don’t live with, as much as possible — and more than half of Americans have been ordered to do so. We’ve been told to wash our hands constantly, clean high-touch surfaces, and avoid touching our faces.
But if the virus can live on surfaces (and research indicates it can), does that mean you also need to be disinfecting everything you buy at the grocery store? Is it safe to order packages online?
As the coronavirus outbreak continues to accelerate in the U.S., cleaning supplies are disappearing off the shelves and people are worried about every subway rail, kitchen counter and toilet seat they touch.
But how long can the new coronavirus linger on surfaces, anyway? The short answer is, we don't know. A new analysis found that the virus can remain viable in the air for up to 3 hours, on copper for up to 4 hours, on cardboard up to 24 hours and on plastic and stainless steel up to 72 hours. This study was originally published in the preprint database medRxiv on March 11, and now a revised version was published March 17 in The New England Journal of Medicine.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 mainly spreads from person to person. When someone who is infected coughs or sneezes, they send droplets containing the virus into the air. A healthy person can then breathe in those droplets. You can also catch the virus if you touch a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touch your mouth, nose, or eyes.
How long can the virus survive on surfaces?
The New England Journal of Medicine just published a study that tested how long the virus can remain stable on different kinds of surfaces within a controlled laboratory setting. They found that it was still detectable on copper for up to four hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and on plastic and steel for up to 72 hours.
But it’s important to note that the amount of virus decreased rapidly overtime on each of those surfaces. And so the risk of infection from touching them would probably decrease over time as well.
The coronavirus responsible for the disease COVID-19 can remain intact on surfaces for anywhere up to 72 hours, according to a study conducted by US researchers.
The precise figure depends heavily on the type of surface infected droplets land on, and might also rely on the density of virus particles in the spray, and other environmental conditions - such as temperature and sunlight.
But with so many particles found to still be infectious after being in the air for a number of hours, the evidence shows why we need to be so concerned with simple hygiene.
Scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the Centers for Disease Control, Princeton University, and the University of California, Los Angeles, experimented with the SARS-CoV-2 virus under laboratory conditions to determine how fast virus particles broke down outside of a host body.
Previous research examining the literature on animal and human strains of coronavirus provided insight into the virus's ability to keep its integrity as it moves through the environment. But until now, experimental evidence on new SARS-CoV-2 has been limited.
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The virus behind the 2003 SARS epidemic, SARS-CoV-1, was also tested for comparison, with strains of both pathogens sprayed as micrometre-sized droplets onto various surfaces including cardboard, copper, and plastic.
Just hanging about in the atmosphere, the effect of factors such as UV light and heat causes the mix of RNA, fatty membrane, and protein making up the particles to steadily break down in a few hours.
Dropped onto plastic, the two virus strains appear to be able to stay intact far longer. Only half of the SARS-CoV-2 particles broke apart in just under seven hours, for example, with viable coronavirus particles still detected up to three days later.
Stainless steel was almost as bad, with a half-life for SARS-CoV-2 of 5.6 hours.
Copper, on the other hand, failed to provide similar protection for either strain, with the number of viable particles capable of causing disease vanishing within just four hours for SARS-CoV-2, and eight hours for SARS-CoV-1.
Similarly, on cardboard, no viable SARS-CoV-2 particles could be found after 24 hours, or SARS-CoV-1 after eight.
There are still a number of variables to keep in mind. Variations in individual results show how much the timing is affected by subtle differences.
The laboratory was also kept at a fairly consistent 21 to 23 degrees Celsius, and 65 percent humidity. Just how this latest virus behaves in other conditions of lighting, humidity, and temperature is left to be seen.
Researchers found SARS-CoV-2 remains infectious in airborne droplets for at least three hours. This doesn’t mean infected humans produce enough virus in cough to infect another person, but they might.
We think the virus also spreads by touch. Hard, shiny surfaces such as plastic, stainless steel, benchtops, and likely glass can support infectious viruses, expelled in droplets, for up to 72 hours. But the virus rapidly degrades during this time. On fibrous and absorbent surfaces such as cardboard, paper, fabric and hessian, it becomes inactive more quickly.
Frequently touched surfaces are all around us. Benches, handrails, door handles – they are in our homes, on our way to work, school, play, shop, and every other destination. There’s a risk of contaminating these surfaces if we touch them with virus-laden fingers, and a risk we’ll contract the virus from such surfaces.
Think of your hands as the enemy. Wash them well, and much more often than usual. Between hand-washing, avoid constantly touching the mucous membranes that lead to your airways. Basically, try not to rub your eyes, pick your nose, or touch your lips and mouth.
The tests were done at the National Institutes of Health's Rocky Mountain Lab in Hamilton, Montana, by scientists from the NIH, Princeton University and the University of California, Los Angeles, with funding from the U.S. government and the National Science Foundation.
The findings have not been reviewed by other scientists yet and were posted on a site where researchers can quickly share their work before publication.
"It's a solid piece of work that answers questions people have been asking," and shows the value and importance of the hygiene advice that public health officials have been stressing, said Julie Fischer, a microbiology professor at Georgetown University.
It depends on the surface. A study published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine found that the virus could survive for the longest — up to three days — on nonporous surfaces like plastic and steel. However, researchers also found that the virus’s ability to infect dropped sharply in this time.
The study found that the virus couldn’t survive as long on cardboard, a more porous surface, where it disintegrated over the course of a day.
But there’s still a lot that researchers don’t know. A study released Monday by the CDC found that the coronavirus survived for up to 17 days on some surfaces aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which experienced a COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year. However, the CDC said that researchers couldn’t “determine whether transmission occurred from contaminated surfaces,” and that further research was needed.
Right now, experts say that the risk of getting infected from touching a contaminated surface is low. For a surface that you touch — like a can of food at the grocery store or a package from Amazon — to be contaminated with the virus, it would have to have been recently handled by someone who is sick.
And so far, there’s not much evidence that people have become infected from touching a contaminated surface. According to the CDC, experts believe that the main way the coronavirus spreads is person-to-person, through respiratory droplets. The CDC writes: “It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
Similarly, “Everything at the grocery store and restaurant containers and bags could, in theory, have an infectious virus on them,” Dr Linsey Marr, an expert in the transmission of viruses by aerosol at Virginia Tech, told the New York Times. “We could go crazy discussing these ‘what-ifs’ because everyone is a potential source, so we have to focus on the biggest risks.”
If you’re concerned that you may have touched a contaminated surface, Marr recommends wiping the item with disinfecting wipes and washing your hands.
What's more, SARS-CoV-2 RNA was found on "a variety of surfaces" in cabins of both symptomatic and asymptomatic people who were infected with COVID-19 on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, up to 17 days after the passengers disembarked, according to a new analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, this was before disinfection procedures took place and "data cannot be used to determine whether transmission occurred from contaminated surfaces," according to the analysis. In other words, it's not clear if the viral particles on these surfaces could have infected people.
Another study published in February in The Journal of Hospital Infection analyzed several dozen previously published papers on human coronaviruses (other than the new coronavirus) to get a better idea of how long they can survive outside of the body.
They concluded that if this new coronavirus resembles other human coronaviruses, such as its "cousins" that cause SARS and MERS, it can stay on surfaces — such as metal, glass or plastic — for as long as nine days (In comparison, flu viruses can last on surfaces for only about 48 hours.)
But some of them don't remain active for as long at temperatures higher than 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius). The authors also found that these coronaviruses can be effectively wiped away by household disinfectants.
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For example, disinfectants with 62-71% ethanol, 0.5% hydrogen peroxide or 0.1% sodium hypochlorite (bleach) can "efficiently" inactivate coronaviruses within a minute, according to the study. "We expect a similar effect against the 2019-nCoV," the researchers wrote, referring to the new coronavirus. But even though the new coronavirus is a similar strain to the SARS coronavirus, it's not clear if it will behave the same.
The coronavirus can live for hours to days on surfaces like countertops and doorknobs. How long it survives depends on the material the surface is made from.
Here's a guide to how long coronaviruses -- the family of viruses that includes the one that causes COVID-19 -- can live on some of the surfaces you probably touch on a daily basis. Keep in mind that researchers still have a lot to learn about the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19. For example, they don't know whether exposure to heat, cold, or sunlight affects how long it lives on surfaces.
Examples: doorknobs, jewelry, silverware
Examples: furniture, decking
Examples: packaging like milk containers and detergent bottles, subway and bus seats, backpacks, elevator buttons
2 to 3 days
Examples: refrigerators, pots and pans, sinks, some water bottles
2 to 3 days
Examples: shipping boxes
Examples: pennies, teakettles, cookware
Examples: soda cans, tinfoil, water bottles
2 to 8 hours
Examples: drinking glasses, measuring cups, mirrors, windows
Up to 5 days
Examples: dishes, pottery, mugs
The length of time varies. Some strains of coronavirus live for only a few minutes on paper, while others live for up to 5 days.
Coronavirus doesn't seem to spread through exposure to food. Still, it's a good idea to wash fruits and vegetables under running water before you eat them. Scrub them with a brush or your hands to remove any germs that might be on their surface. Wash your hands after you visit the supermarket. If you have a weakened immune system, you might want to buy frozen or canned produce.
Coronavirus hasn't been found in drinking water. If it does get into the water supply, your local water treatment plant filters and disinfects the water, which should kill any germs.
Coronaviruses can live on a variety of other surfaces, like fabrics and countertops