A number of posts on Facebook, which have been shared thousands of times, have warned that “if you order anything from CHINA be careful with your packages” due to the coronavirus outbreak, because “the virus can live on a surface for up to 28 days”.
This worry is likely overstated. There is currently no evidence that this virus can survive that long on packages. The advice from medical bodies including the NHS, the USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organisation (WHO) all say that the risk of catching the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 from a package is low, or that there’s no evidence this can happen.
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What does the medical advice say?
The NHS says simply “There is currently no evidence that you can catch coronavirus from parcels and letters”, and that it’s “very unlikely it can be spread through things like packages or food.”
The CDC explains this a bit more, saying “In general, because of poor survivability of [other coronaviruses SARS and MERS] on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient temperatures.”
And the WHO explains that: “The likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low.”
As Dr Todd Ellerin, an expert in infectious diseases, wrote on the Harvard Medical School blog: “Remember, this is a respiratory virus similar to the flu. We don’t stop receiving packages from China during their flu season. We should follow that same logic for this novel pathogen.”
What do we know about how long this coronavirus survives on surfaces?
Because the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 (technically known as SARS-CoV-2) is a new virus, there is little direct evidence on how it behaves.
However, because coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that have been studied for decades, it’s possible to look at the characteristics of similar viruses as a reasonable guide to this one.
A scientific paper surveying the available evidence on how long coronaviruses can survive on inanimate surfaces, published after the Covid-19 outbreak began, concluded that “Human coronaviruses can remain infectious on inanimate surfaces for up to 9 days.”
It’s possible that the suggestion that the novel coronavirus can survive on surfaces for 28 days may stem from an article by AccuWeather, which referenced a 2010 study and said that at “lower temperatures, the virus could survive on a stainless steel surface from 5 to 28 days”. But it’s worth noting that this was a study of animal coronaviruses, not human ones, and that the viruses lasted longest in very cold and dry conditions: at 4°C and 20% humidity. This study was considered in the above paper that concluded human coronaviruses can survive for up to 9 days.
In practice, as the WHO says, a package that “has been moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature” is unlikely to see the virus last as long. And as the CDC puts it, while it may be possible to pick up the virus from contaminated surfaces in general, “this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads”. The main way the virus spreads is believed to be from person-to-person contact.
The best way to stop the spread of the virus remains to regularly wash your hands with soap and water for twenty seconds, or if that’s not available, using a hand sanitiser that has at least 60% alcohol.