Fact or fiction: Is COVID-19 really airborne?

By Melissa Sammy, MDLinx
Published March 18, 2020

Key Takeaways

The World Health Organization (WHO) had previously estimated that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)—the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)—can survive on surfaces anywhere from “a few hours to up to several days.” Now, scientists have narrowed down this timeframe, noting that SARS-CoV-2 may be stable for up to 3 days on surfaces and—importantly—hours in the air, according to a correspondence to the editor recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Their findings are based on a study out in preprint form that is expected to be published soon.

“Although the [WHO] had previously estimated the survival time on surfaces to be a ‘few hours to a few days’ based on research on other coronaviruses, this is the first study by scientists at a federal laboratory to test the actual virus causing the current pandemic, SARS-CoV-2,” according to an article in NPR.

“This virus has the capability for remaining viable for days,” says study author, James Lloyd-Smith, PhD, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, University of California, Los Angeles, CA, who researches how pathogens emerge.

Dr. Lloyd-Smith—along with scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Princeton University, University of California-Los Angeles, and the CDC—detected SARS-Cov-2 for up to 3 hours in aerosols, up to 4 hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard, and up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless steel. They suggested that people may contract the virus through exposure to particles in the air and after touching contaminated objects.

Surprisingly, both SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV-1—the virus that causes SARS—behaved similarly in their experiments, the scientists observed. Unfortunately, this result fails to explain why COVID-19 has become a much larger outbreak.

Ultimately, their findings support recommendations from public health experts to use precautions similar to those for the flu and other respiratory diseases to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s emerging diseases and zoonosis unit, underscored the need for healthcare professionals to take extra steps to protect themselves when performing certain procedures— such as intubation—on patients with COVID-19 or those suspected of infection.

“When you do an aerosol-generating procedure like in a medical care facility, you have the possibility to what we call aerosolize these particles, which means they can stay in the air a little bit longer,” Dr. Van Kerkhove said.

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