Back in March, as the covid-19 pandemic took over the planet, Apple finally told users that it’s okay to use some disinfecting wipes on their iPhones. At the time, transmission risks were opaque and it was better to be safe than sorry. In the meantime, we’ve learned that saliva droplets in the air pose the clearest risk for transmitting the virus, and we may have become a little careless when it comes to being mindful of surface transmission risks.
New research from Australia’s CSIRO science agency found that under lab conditions, covid-19 was much sturdier than previously believed. The team found that when samples were tested in the dark at 68° Fahrenheit on non-porous surfaces (glass, polymer note, stainless steel, vinyl, and paper notes), infectious virus was recoverable for a whopping 28 days. That’s 11 days longer than the influenza virus survives under the same conditions. “These findings demonstrate SARS-CoV-2 can remain infectious for significantly longer time periods than generally considered possible,” the researchers said.
But your life isn’t designed around maintaining the ideal conditions for a coronavirus to thrive. UV light is believed to have the ability to kill the virus and its lifespan was reduced when the Australian researchers raised the temperature in their tests. At 86° Fahrenheit, samples of stainless steel, polymer notes, and glass showed that live infectious virus was recoverable for up to seven days.
Non-porous materials like cotton cloth were found to contain traces of infectious virus for up to 14 days with a temperature of 68° Fahrenheit. This is all pretty vague data for figuring out your personal risks of virus transmission from surfaces, but previous research found the virus’s lifespan was closer to three days on glass and six days on stainless steel. In other words, we might want to be a bit more mindful of covid’s resilience on surfaces.
But there’s no reason to panic. Professor Ron Eccles, former director Common Cold Centre at Cardiff University, told the BBC that the new research can come off as alarmist and criticized the study for not using fresh human mucus as a vehicle for the virus in tests. He explained that the white cell load in mucus can be very hostile to viruses.
From the beginning of the pandemic, very little has changed regarding the recommended protocols for protecting yourself and others from spreading the virus—wear a mask, keep a substantial distance between yourself and others, wash your hands, avoid enclosed spaces. This isn’t complicated, but shifting research in risks and erratic policy shifts at the government level have managed to make it more complicated than it should be.
You probably don’t have to have to act like the tips of your fingers are radioactive after you pick up a box of cereal at the grocery store. Sure, wash your hands, but there are a lot of environmental factors working in your favor in that scenario. The devices in our pockets are often getting a sample of everything we’re inadvertently touching when we’re out and about, and they should probably get a wipe down every time we wash our hands.