Traces of Coronavirus Can Last 17 Days
But that doesn’t mean they’re infectious
A new study of the quarantined Diamond Princess and Grand Princess cruise ships showed that traces of the coronavirus can survive up to 17 days on hard surfaces. The research, published Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sounds alarming — how hardy is this thing? — but it gives us important insight into the virus’s biology.
Scientists already knew that cruise ships were hubs for disease spread since they bring people from all over the world together and put them into very close quarters for days on end. This research showed that the coronavirus’s genetic material lingered on these ships even after passengers disembarked.
“SARS-CoV-2 RNA was identified on a variety of surfaces in cabins of both symptomatic and asymptomatic infected passengers up to 17 days after cabins were vacated on the Diamond Princess but before disinfection procedures had been conducted,” the paper notes. RNA is the virus’s genetic material.
This research comes with a crucial caveat: Even though viral RNA was found on surfaces, this paper shows no evidence that these fragments could cause infection. They might, but we’ll need follow-up research to prove it — a move that the CDC says is “warranted.”
Epidemiologist Tara C. Smith made a critical distinction on Twitter: “Viral RNA doesn’t necessarily mean live virus was present.” The term “live virus” refers to a virus particle that is capable of replicating. This isn’t always the case: “Once they’re dried out after being on a surface for a period of time, they may no longer be able to grow inside cells, even if their genetic material (RNA or DNA) can still be detected, as in this study,” Smith tweeted.
Though we don’t yet know what this viral RNA is capable of, this paper is a reminder to be extra careful about cleaning surfaces regularly and thoroughly as well as to be cautious of reopening public places, which is now happening in China. Axios’s health care editor Sam Baker pointed out: “The virus lives a long time on hard surfaces, and that’s another reason to be wary about quickly reopening businesses like bars, restaurants, and gyms while the virus is still spreading quickly.”
Research on the live virus published on March 17, meanwhile, showed that it can survive anywhere from hours to days, depending on the type of surface.