Here is how one careless sentence triggered a surge of detergents in our oceans.
About two weeks ago the Internet exploded with offers (such as chemicals, devices and services) related to disinfection of apartments where a COVID-19-positive person had stayed. Because I was asked for an opinion, I searched online. I was primarily interested in whether disinfection made sense at all. I found the answer in two articles. In the Journal of Hospital Infection article, the authors (G. Kampf et al) state that various coronaviruses can remain active between 2 hours and 9 days. And what about the particular SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus? Neeltje van Doremalen, Ph.D (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Hamilton, MT) and her colleagues provide this summary of their article, illustrated by the following chart.
In essence, the authors measured experimentally how long the viruses SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 survive outside the human organism. Apparently they do not not do very well. Typically half of the viral particles will be gone after an hour or two. The longest viability of both viruses was on stainless steel and plastic; the estimated median half-life of SARS-CoV-2 was approximately 5.6 hours on stainless steel and 6.8 hours on plastic. The authors also measured how long it takes until no viable virus is left. The results are: 24 hours on cardboard, 48 hours on stainless steel, and 72 hours on plastic. This does not imply that no RNA material is left, but rather that if anything is still there, its quantity and quality does not pose practical danger of infection. As I understand, the study was performed in room temperature. Also this paper by Alex W H Chin et al is worth attention. Authors established that the virus is highly stable at 4°C, but sensitive to heat (the higher the temperature, the faster it disintegrates).
Practical conclusion: disinfection is needed and highly recommended if the apartment, vacated by an infected person, is to be occupied immediately by someone else. But if you have time, you can just as well do nothing – simply wait a few hours, or to be really safe, 3 days. Then the virus is gone.
…or 17 days?
I posted my discovery online to see what others would say. I did not have to wait long. Someone commented with this Bloomberg story (published on March 23rd), which states that traces of the coronavirus lingered in the Diamond Princess’ cabins for 17 days. This hot story had been immediately reprinted by thousands of sources, including dailymail.co.uk, abcnews, cnbc, Fox News, Mirror, as well as medical websites, and numerous local sources (in Poland: Gazeta Wrocławska, Rzeczpospolita, Dziennik Polski, Fakt, Portal Morski). The titles of many of those reprints got simplified. Simply, the virus survived 17 days.
All right then, I must have been wrong. However, the discrepancy between the numbers was puzzling so I decided to dig deeper. Those articles quoted an alleged report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I found that the original CDC report was actually available online. And then it became really interesting because – surprise – the report said something else. As you can notice, the subject of the paper is quite different. Only a laconic note on page 4 says:
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 (Takuya Yamagishi, National Institute of Infectious Diseases, personal communication, 2020). Although these data cannot be used to determine whether transmission occurred from contaminated surfaces, further study of fomite transmission of SARS-CoV-2 aboard cruise ships is warranted.
Interpretation of this paragraph is not easy. First of all, what does personal communication mean? It appears the authors did not find the virus themselves, but spoke to a third party who allegedly did. Secondly, what is meant by up to 17 days? Could this indicate uncertainty? Thirdly, what does RNA mean? Does this really indicate that the virus was still there, or perhaps only traces of its genetic material were found, without the capacity to infect? And finally, the last sentence expresses further doubt as to whether the virus could have been transmitted from the surface.
To confirm my understanding, I personally contacted directly both the main author of the report from CDC, as well as the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Japan, whom they quoted as the source. Neither of them has replied. As I was waiting for the answer, a few days later I saw more authors raise similar doubts. In this article, Rachel Fairbank shared the following observation [emphasis mine]:
[…] finding viral RNA—not exactly the same as finding an infectious viral particle. The presence of fragments of a virus isn’t necessarily the same as an intact viral particle capable of infecting a person. Beyond that, the CDC does not provide the methods used to arrive at this 17 day figure, but instead cites personal communication—the scientific equivalent of passing off gossip as fact. Maybe it’s right, maybe it’s wrong, but you won’t know until you’ve gotten the full details from the original source.
But the details from the source have not come, and the damage has been done.
So… a few hours or 17 days? Quite obviously, it is better to trust scientific research, which provides sound arguments supported by experiments and described in detail sufficient to allow for replication – as opposed to Bloomberg’s version of truth, supported by gossip impossible to verify. So… in room temperature, a few hours. Not 17 days. Is it obvious now?
If you think it is, then let’s see how the general public, including communal institutions, responded to this news.
The above photo shows sanitization of public transportation stops in Kraków, Poland, which started almost immediately after Bloomberg and abcnews’ bombshell had been dropped. In the press release, the officials stated that things like pavements, footwalks and zebra crossings were being disinfected with environment-friendly chemicals. Does such a decision sound absurd? Not if you are a town mayor running an ad-hoc crisis response team, knowing you don’t have enough hospital beds, and someone has just placed this on your desk. The big title reads that the virus survives 17 days.
Kraków was not unique. The 17-days-fake-story electrified people around the globe. It turns out that in that time frame, many towns and institutions worldwide followed similar procedures. And not all those decisions were environment-friendly. On April 2nd, BBC asked whether the UK should use drones to disinfect public spaces, and that is not an April fools’ joke.
Meanwhile, many people started sanitizing their groceries. On 24th March (just one day after Bloomberg) a video from a doctor from Michigan, advising to wash your groceries in soap, becomes viral with 23 million views (doing so is very bad idea, according to critics here). On April 9th, CNet recommended Lysol and Clorox for disinfecting one’s house and car. Sales and use of chemicals skyrocketed worldwide, even tough the earlier lessons had been grim. In this visual material, the Atlantic collected several pictures of earlier large-scale disinfection efforts. Among other things, such operations have caused mass deaths of animals from poisoning.
But isn’t sanitation rational?
Disinfection is a rational behavior. It kills the virus and prevents its spread. It is recommended by the WHO. Depending on the situation, sometimes it may be enough to wash your hands, sometimes it may be necessary to sanitize an entire room.
The issue lies in the scale of our actions and their adequacy to the real danger. In many cases they may not be. In the article I quoted earlier, Rachel Fairbank explains why You Don’t Need To Sanitize Your Groceries. And in this article in sciencemag, Robert F. Service concludes that the practice of sanitizing public spaces is at least doubtful and probably has no effect on spreading the disease, while causing harm to the environment. Also, there is currently no clear evidence on the likelihood of viral transmission from surfaces, with conflicting study results as explained by Molly Walker of MedPage Today. There are many more sources providing pros and cons. The decision-makers need to have access to all such materials before they can make an informed decision.
In this context, the Bloomberg bombshell influenced many of these decisions in a terrible way. Who knows how many town mayors and hospital directors ended up deciding to purchase tons of chlorine bleach for sanitizing pavements, instead of spending the budgets on a few additional oxygen ventilators? And how much of that stuff has ended up in our rivers and oceans?
Why is all this happening to us?
At this point it is tempting to drive towards a conspiracy theory, but I will disappoint you. Here is Reckitt Benckiser’s (the producer of Lysol) stock chart, compared to the S&P and Nasdaq indices. It is doing well, but from the data perspective, there is no reason to assume any correlation with what we describe in this story.
I’ll let others dig into the question of if any lobbying was involved, and I leave it out of the scope of this article. I am not concerned with those conspiracies. The main problem with conspiracy theories is that they push the responsibility away from us. Instead, let’s track the most probable course of events. Since I was not able to talk to the CDC or NIID, some of the following is based on guessing:
1. The Japanese NIID inspects the Diamond Princess and discovers remnants of the coronavirus’ RNA, probably harmless, in the cabins. They decide it is not worth publishing, but report it in a private conversation with the CDC.
2. The CDC publish their Diamond Princess report. For completeness, they mention that conversation in a laconic note.
3. A journalist hungry for sensation discovers this note and decides to make it into a story. Catchy titles have to be short, so useless words like “RNA”, “up to” and “personal communication” get lost. The story is trending. Within 24 hours, a billion readers around the globe learn that the CDC found the virus still active after 17 days.
4. Would you dispute the authority of the CDC? Not if you are a healthcare or administrative decision maker expected to protect citizens from the virus. In the end, money around the globe is spent badly, and chemicals end up on streets, in rivers and oceans.
So this is what really happened: irresponsible journalism, and the lack of data literacy among decision makers.
Who is guilty?
We all make errors. Miscommunication happens. But it has been 18 days after the bombshell. What I fail to understand is the following (and if I am wrong with any of the below, please send me corrective material so that I can update this article):
1. Why haven’t the Japanese NIID issued an official statement, contradicting the press sensation?
2. Why haven’t the CDC issued an official clarification?
5. Finally, what about local decision makers? I do not expect them to study scientific papers. But how many of them consult scientific advisory bodies before reaching important decisions?
Let me end this on a positive note. Kudos and respect for a handful of responsible press professionals who acted differently. I found three.
David Oliver from USA Today published this correction to his earlier article [emphasis mine]: Corrections & clarifications: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that novel coronavirus RNA, or genetic material, not the coronavirus itself, was identified on surfaces in Diamond Princess cruise ship cabins up to 17 days after cabins were vacated.
The Guardian reacted differently than most of the press. Instead of promoting the gossip, Danielle Renwick published this interview with Dr Julia Marcus and Dr Akiko Iwasaki who provided proper narration to the story: If you have bits and pieces of RNA, that’s not going to make a virus, you need an entire intact genome. Just because you had a little piece of RNA doesn’t mean that there’s an infection.
And the highest honor to those news agencies who ignored the bombshell altogether. The BBC is one of them. Already on March 17th, the BBC’s Richard Grey published this well-edited commentary article, quoting Neeltje van Doremalen’s work (that’s the chart I quoted in the beginning), stating that the virus circulating in unfiltered air conditioning systems will only persist for a couple of hours at the most. Sars-CoV-2 virus survives for longer on cardboard – up to 24 hours – and up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless-steel surfaces. When the bombshell dropped, the BBC ignored it altogether, which was the most responsible thing to do.
Well done BBC, Guardian and USA Today, and other small pockets of responsible journalism. Shame to the rest. Almost three weeks after the story, still no clarifications have been published. Vast numbers of readers worldwide continue to believe we should sanitize towns, optimally spreading chemicals from flying drones, to kill the mythical coronavirus that can survive for 17 days.
Footnotes & Acknowledgements
Note 1: This research may be incomplete. Should you find any errors or omissions, I invite you to contact me and provide more data – I will provide a proper citation if you do so. Note 2: This article is my private after-hours effort. It has no relation to the institutions I am associated with: my customers, employers or partners.
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Log of edits
Below is the list of changes I made in the article since the publishing date.
1. 13th April 2020. Changed the title of the article, in the reaction of a friendly comment that to an American reader the word “fake” or “fake news” has strong association with President’s Donald Trump’s rhetoric. From my European perspective, I had no idea. The original title read: “Virus Survived 17 days? Fake”
2. On 22.04.2020 added this paragraph (thank you Kuba Bochiński for pointing me to this source): As I understand, the study was performed in room temperature. Also this paper by Alex W H Chin et al is worth attention. Authors established that the virus is highly stable at 4°C, but sensitive to heat (the higher the temperature, the faster it disintegrates).
3. On 22.04.2020, in the light of this article, also removed the phrase “if you know that virus dies after few hours”, when referring to the decision of disinfecting bus stops. Indeed, as rightly pointed by my reader Kuba Bochiński, if virus is more stable in low temperatures, one cannot “know” for sure it would not remain active on a bus stop in cold winter day
I am grateful to those people who helped me with valuable comments, and contributed to improving this article: Laura Pearlman, Miha Ahronovitz, Izabella Jaworska, Tomek Kaleczyc, Mike Dvorak, Kuba Bochiński and the translator Małgorzata Bronowska-Huszar who contributed most effort by proofreading the entire text and then translating it into Polish.