March 13, 2020

The new coronavirus can survive in the air for about three hours and on some surfaces for up to three days, according to a new study conducted by scientists from NIH, Princeton University, and UCLA. The study is awaiting peer review.

Our analysis: The 'recurring themes' of disease outbreaks

About the coronavirus epidemic

Reports of the new coronavirus first surfaced in early December 2019 in Wuhan, China. As of Friday morning, officials reported more than 135,400 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, globally. In China, the number of newly reported cases of COVID-19 has slowed. But outside of China, the number of newly reported cases of COVID-19 are on the rise.

In the United States, state and federal officials as of Friday morning reported 1,663 confirmed or presumed positive cases of COVID-19, up from 231 last Friday. So far, 41 U.S. deaths have been linked to the new coronavirus.

How long the new coronavirus can live in the air, on common surfaces

The researchers noted that doctors have detected the new coronavirus in patients' upper and lower respiratory tracts, which they wrote suggests the virus could be transmitted via "respiratory secretions in the form of droplets or aerosols."

Therefore, they sought to determine how stable the virus is in the air and on surfaces to better understand how it could transmitted.  

To do so, the researchers examined how the virus behaves in the air using a nebulizer device to swirl samples of the virus in an air chamber, simulating how the virus would behave if an infected person coughed or sneezed. The researchers also observed how the virus survived on different surfaces, and after a few hours or days, looked to see if the virus had the ability to infect cells in a petri dish at that point.

The researchers found that the virus could survive:

  • Up to three hours in the air;
  • Up to four hours on copper;
  • Up to 24 hours on cardboard; and
  • Up to two-to-three days on plastic and stainless steel.

"Our results indicate the aerosol and fomite transmission of [the new coronavirus] is plausible, as the virus can remain viable in aerosols for multiple hours and on surfaces for days," the researchers wrote.

According to the MIT Technology Review, the findings indicate that hospital equipment could possibly be a vector for disease.

However, while the findings provide insight into how long the virus can survive on certain surfaces, at this point, scientists do not have "definitive proof" the virus can spread through inanimate objects, the MIT Technology Review reports.

Discussion

Julie Fischer, a microbiology professor at Georgetown University, who was not involved in the study, called the research "a solid piece of work that answers questions people have been asking." She added that the public needs to be "washing our hands, being aware that people who are infected may be contaminating surfaces."

Still, Marilyn Roberts, a microbiologist at the University of Washington School of Public Health, said

"We don't know if you can pick up COVID-19 from contaminated surfaces or inanimate objects at this point," she said. "That's the bottom line."

Health experts have recommended people use alcohol-based cleansers to disinfect surfaces, the MIT Technology Review reports. Rubbing alcohol and diluted hydrogen peroxide are two of the most effective ways to combat the virus (Marchinoe, AP/TIME, 3/11; Regalado, MIT Technology Review, 3/11; Bowden, The Hill, 3/11; Doremalen et al., working paper, accessed 3/12; New York Times, 3/13; Smith et al., New York Times, 3/13).

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