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Coronavirus can live on surfaces for days

Study: Virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic can survive on surfaces and in the air for longer than you may think

Coronavirus can live on surfaces for days

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The novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe can linger in the air and on surfaces for several hours and as long as days, according to a new study published this month in The New England Journal of Medicine.

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Scientists from the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Princeton University analyzed the stability of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)—the virus that causes the disease COVID-19—in the air and on various types of surfaces. This work allowed researchers to better understand the pervasive spread of the pandemic.

“Our results indicate that aerosol and fomite transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is plausible, since the virus can remain viable and infectious in aerosols for hours and on surfaces up to days,” the study’s author wrote. A fomite is an object likely to carry disease, such as clothing, utensils or furniture.

The team’s findings showed that SARS-CoV-2 can remain airborne for up to three hours, survive as long as to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and steel surfaces. The findings suggest that the virus can live on items we touch often every day—such as mobile phones, computer keyboards, door handles and elevator buttons—for just as long. However, on copper surfaces, which contain natural antimicrobial and antiviral properties that has been shown to inactivate microbes, SARS-CoV-2 only was able to survive for four hours.

“It tells us that it’s on the surfaces and that we have to be vigilant about cleaning surfaces and washing your hands with soap and water, which was already part of our recommendations,” said Laila Woc-Colburn, M.D., associate professor of infectious diseases and director of medical education at the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “If you sneeze into the tissue, throw away the tissue and wash your hands because that tissue is going to contain little droplets with the virus, if you have the virus.”

Using soap and alcohol-based cleaners to disinfect surfaces is critical.

Like most viruses, the outer structure—or membrane—of the coronavirus is made of a lipid bilayer that houses proteins that enable the virus to attach itself to host cells. Soap molecules have two ends: one that binds to water, the other that binds to fat. The end that attaches to fat wedges between the virus’ lipid bilayer and breaks down the membrane, while the other side that is attracted to water allows the fragments of the virus to be rinsed away.

The hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent ethanol can also inactivate viruses by destroying the lipid bilayer, but washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds is the undefeated champion of protecting against infections.

Person-to-person transmission of COVID-19, like other respiratory illnesses, is mainly spread through close contact and droplets an infected person releases through a sneeze or cough. Sneezing can release up to 40,000 droplets and coughing can expel up to 3,000 droplets. These droplets can often land on other people in proximity and surrounding surfaces, while tinier particulates smaller than 5 micrometers can float in the air.

“When you sneeze into your hand, for example, you put your hand on a banister and someone else touches that banister then their face, they get infected,” Woc-Colburn said. “A respiratory virus is going to be on surfaces. It’s not going to live forever, but with good cleaning, it’ll remove the virus from the surface.”

The paper’s findings regarding the longevity of the virus in the air and on surfaces reinforce the messages of public health experts: Maintain social distance, don’t touch your face, wash your hands often and keep surfaces clean.

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