What It Takes to Annihilate a Coronavirus

Trying to destroy something that doesn’t live is complicated

Roxanne Khamsi
Elemental
Published in
6 min readFeb 19, 2020

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A photo of a coronavirus.
Photo: PASIEKA/Getty Images

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Just as there are many different kinds of viruses, there are many different ways to destroy them.

As the spread of the new coronavirus continues, surpassing 70,000 confirmed cases and more than 2,000 deaths, there’s increasing pressure among scientists to figure out how long the virus might survive outside the human body.

How long a virus endures has implications for the scope of the outbreak: It matters for keeping hospital environments safe and minimizing the spread of the virus among people in public spaces.

A review of the scientific literature published last week reported that the family of viruses to which the new coronavirus belongs tend to persist around four days on surfaces at room temperature. Previously, researchers found that the coronavirus behind the SARS outbreak of 2003 could remain infectious on dry surfaces as long as six days. Scientists are now racing to understand how easily this new pathogen — now officially known as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) — can spread.

There’s a surprisingly wide range of how long viruses can last. On one end are viruses like the common cold–causing rhinovirus, which sometimes wither on surfaces within just two hours. At the other extreme are hardy parvoviruses, which can infect dogs and last more than a year on surfaces. Severely cold temperatures can also preserve viruses for longer: In an experiment published in 2014, scientists isolated a virus in material taken from 100 feet deep in the Siberian permafrost and showed that the virus — which they estimated to be more than 30,000 years old — could still infect amoebas.

Discovering the presence of genetic material of a virus doesn’t necessarily mean the virus is intact and infectious. When scientists are testing surfaces for viruses, they typically swab or run fluid over the surface in question to dislodge and collect any viral particles. They then use pipettes to transfer samples of that liquid to cells in a dish. The cells in the dish could be mucus cells, for example. (Basically, they’re the kind of…

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Roxanne Khamsi
Elemental

Health reporter uncovering overlooked science. Follow her on Twitter at @rkhamsi and get her new articles here: https://roxanne.substack.com/p/coming-soon