Coronavirus Can Survive In The Air For Several Hours And On Surfaces For Three Days, Study Suggests

Palestinian workers disinfect a municipal building in Rafah, Palestine, on March 9, 2020. Abed Rahim Khatib/Shutterstock

The new coronavirus sweeping the globe can linger in the air for several hours and lurk on some surfaces for as long as three days, according to a new study.

New research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an agency of the US government, has assessed how long the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for COVID-19 can survive on a range of different surfaces found in homes and hospitals. They found the novel coronavirus can survive for up to 4 hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard, and 2 to 3 days on plastic and stainless steel.

This means the coronavirus could theoretically infect someone after hanging out on a door handle or handrail for several days – another good reason to wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water.  

They also found that the pathogen can live in the air in an aerosolized form for up to 3 hours. The study authors conclude “our results indicate that aerosol and fomite transmission of HCoV-19 is plausible, as the virus can remain viable in aerosols for multiple hours and on surfaces up to days.” In other words, it’s possible for the virus to survive in the air for three hours after it was coughed, sneezed, or breathed out of an infected person, although it remains unclear whether the virus can be spread person-to-person through airborne transmission. 

However, “We’re not by any way saying there is aerosolized transmission of the virus,” stressed Dr Neeltje van Doremalen, lead study author from the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaking to the Associated Press.

The research was published on the preprint server medRxiv, and so has not yet been peer-reviewed.

A scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (yellow) emerging from the surface of cells (pink). NIAID-RML

Previous research gauged how long the novel coronavirus might live on surfaces by looking at other members of the coronavirus family, which includes SARS and MERS. This new study actually studied real samples of the coronavirus responsible for the current pandemic, SARS-CoV-2. Although some have argued this name may cause confusion due to its similarities to SARS and should be renamed human coronavirus 2019, or HCoV-19 (Note: this is how the authors refer to it), this change hasn't officially occurred, and may not yet, as others argue another change could cause more confusion.

This new research also saw the researchers compare SARS-CoV-2 to SARS-CoV-1, a similar coronavirus that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak. Although the current COVID-19 outbreak is notably worse than the SARS outbreak, the researchers found the SARS virus tends to survive on surfaces for just as long as SARS-CoV-2. This suggests that the apparent "aggressiveness" of the current COVID-19 pandemic can be explained by its ability to survive outside of the body on surfaces. 

“HCoV-19 (SARS-CoV-2) has caused many more cases of illness and resulted in more deaths than SARS-CoV-1 126 and is proving more difficult to contain. Our results indicate that the greater transmissibility observed for 127 HCoV-19 is unlikely to be due to greater environmental viability of this virus compared to SARS-CoV-1,” the authors write.

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