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Can COVID-19 Survive on Surfaces for Hours?

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect our world, new discoveries are coming to light about the virus’ transmission and longevity. What really is the virus’ lifespan outside of the body and how does it affect the spread of the disease?

According to a newly published study from the National Institutes of Health, CDC, UCLA, and Princeton University published in The New England Journal of Medicine, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19, can remain stable for hours to days outside of the body depending on its environment. The study was conducted by simulating infected individuals transmitting the virus onto common surfaces found in households and hospitals through coughing or touching. The NIH scientists observed the duration the virus remained infectious on these surfaces, the results of which are summarized in the table below:

Environment Time Period
In aerosols Up to 3 hours
On copper Up to 4 hours
On cardboard Up to 24 hours
On plastic Up to 2-3 days
On stainless steel Up to 2-3 days

These results suggest that the virus can be acquired through the air and after contact with contaminated objects.

The scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases' Montana facility at Rocky Mountain Laboratories also observed how the environment affects SARS-CoV-2 and compared it to SARS-CoV-1, which causes SARS. SARS-CoV-1 is the closest relative human coronavirus to SARS-CoV-2. SARS-CoV-1 originated from China and infected over 8,000 people in 2002 and 2003. No cases have been identified since 2004. The scientists found that SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 behaved similarly in different environments. These results do not allow for an explanation as to why COVID-19 has become a much larger outbreak relative to SARS.

They noted other observations from the study. SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 possess similar viability, but SARS-CoV-2 has caused more cases. They believe this may be due to infected people transmitting the virus unknowingly due to not recognizing symptoms or not recognizing them early enough. This makes disease control more difficult. Additionally, a majority of secondary cases of SARS-CoV-2 seem to occur in community settings instead of healthcare settings, as opposed to SARS-CoV-1. Still, healthcare settings are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV-2 stability in aerosols and on surfaces likely contributes to the spread of the virus.

What do these findings mean for us? If we want to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19, we have to be even more vigilant about adhering to the safety precautions outlined by the CDC including:
  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick
  • Avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Staying home if you are sick
  • Covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue then throw the tissue in the trash
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe

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