by Tom Chivers
Monday, 10
January 2022
Reaction
07:00

Repeat after me: Covid doesn’t spread on surfaces

Will we ever move beyond outdated advice?
by Tom Chivers
Watch out for those fomites!

On every table in every cafe, on every counter-top in every store, there is a bottle of disinfectant. Every shop door has a “please disinfect your hands” sign with a little hand gel dispenser. “These premises are cleaned regularly,” say proud little signs in train stations.

It’s more than two years since the virus started spreading, and we still think it does so by touching things.

For the record: it pretty much doesn’t and we’ve known as much for a while. Almost exactly a year ago, Nature was asking: “COVID-19 rarely spreads through surfaces. So why are we still deep cleaning?”

It was, at the beginning of the pandemic, a reasonable thing to think. We didn’t know much about how it spread and we went on what we thought we knew about other coronaviruses and the flu. What we thought was that it spread via contact — via “fomites”, infected surfaces. We were urged to wash our hands regularly. (I remember going to a gig in March 2020, and being amazed that men were washing their hands after going to the toilet! Unprecedented.)

But it became clear, relatively quickly, that that wasn’t how it worked. A Lancet Infectious Diseases paper way back in August 2020 pointed out that the claims about how long Covid lasted on surfaces was overstated, based on studies that used unrealistic concentrations of viral particles. 

As far as I know, there have been no solidly confirmed cases of fomite transmission (although this somewhat gross “snot-oral transmission” incident is a possible). No doubt there have actually been many tens of thousands — most cases are never fully traced — but they are rare. Instead, SARS-Cov2 spreads through people breathing or coughing out tiny droplets which each carry a payload of viral particles. It is the concentration of those particles in the air which is the risk factor, not how long it has been since a surface was cleaned. 

Things aren’t quite as mad as they were in 2020, when our children’s school shut down on Wednesdays (in the brief period when it was open at all) for a “deep clean” and all the local playgrounds were fenced off in case someone got the virus from licking a swing, or when people were decontaminating their Ocado deliveries. But it’s still there. Amazingly, the UK government’s guidance is that “Regular cleaning plays a vital role in limiting the transmission of COVID-19,” and that at home and at work, “As a minimum, frequently touched surfaces should be wiped down twice a day.” The US CDC has similar advice. (The WHO used to, but has changed it, although Facebook still recommends that you “clean hands often and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at home”, quoting the WHO as a source.)

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t clean things or you shouldn’t wash your hands. You should! The prevention of faecal-oral transmission of pathogens, through hand-washing and increased hygiene, is one of the great reasons why waterborne illnesses are so reduced in the Western world (along with improved sewerage). But you presumably did that before the pandemic, and you didn’t feel the need to sanitise your hands every time you went into Uniqlo or disinfect every surface in your house twice a day.

Instead, what we should be doing is improving ventilation, keeping windows open and meeting outdoors where possible. And, for a start, changing the bloody government advice. It turns out that the miasma theory of disease actually had a lot going for it.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
47 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Andrea X
Andrea X
5 months ago

And what about those who keep washing their shopping trolley at my supermarket?
I have NEVER done it myself and I am still here.
Not to mention all the slime that is on the floor, or the paper that is wasted.
But you know, you must do something, as doing nothing is not an option, and cleaning surfaces is “doing something”.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago

Tom Chivers… I agree with you. May this be a good day! Maybe Australia could start rowing back from their increasing authoritarian lunacy and we could watch the number 1 tennis player in the world compete to become the greatest of all time.
Not holding my breath that the Australian authorities give a fig about human rights though – they have not shown any signs for a long time. Are they really asking why this super fit young male athlete who has had Covid twice not want this vaccine that has limited efficacy and that has serious side effects that adversely affect his section of the population.

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
5 months ago

I am also shocked to agree with Chivers. When will lockdowns and vaccine mandates be considered also outdated by him, though?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
5 months ago
Reply to  Fran Martinez

It should depend on the evidence shouldn’t it? As far as I can see, lockdowns can’t be shown to be effective, as well as being very damaging, vaccines are (they reduce the chances of severe disease). Vaccine passports, at least against Omicron, probably have little or no effect. Masks, seems to depend on the type but most cloth masks have a very limited if any benefit, probably only for others and not the wearer. But I’m open to argument and evidence.

As far as I can see Chivers bases his views on research and evidence and he is always open to questioning and doubt.

Unfortunately all too many people (including on this forum) do not, and just disappear into their own echo-chambers picking up bits of stuff on the internet they agree with and rubbishing everything else, or claiming it is all a world wide conspiracy (or sometimes, a Chinese bio-
weapon!) etc.

Last edited 5 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
5 months ago

Sadly it isn’t just the Australians that have this attitude. The NHS is insisting all staff are vaccinated or lose their jobs. This is to people who have worked alongside patients and colleagues who have had Covid, many have had it themselves, so therefore have natural antibodies. But a vaccine of limited time value is still preferred by the ignorami/muses(?) who dictate how the NHS is run. Not that any of ’em get their hands dirty you understand.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago
Reply to  Jean Nutley

Disgraceful

Sue Whorton
Sue Whorton
5 months ago
Reply to  Jean Nutley

When my husband was working in the NHS, flu vaccines were not mandated but if you did not have one, you had to have discussions with your line manager and give a justifiable reason such as allergy or previous abreaction.

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
5 months ago

A change of tune from Chivers?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
5 months ago

This is merely the first leaf falling in autumn. The entire world is waking up to the utterly self destructive psychosis every single aspect of the covid response was/is – and so the ones who caused this disaster will begin excusing their ‘mistakes’, as having had bad information.

Soon every one of the NHS clapping, masking policing, Vax Mandating, Lockdown forcing neo-Fa* cists will begin their Mea-Culpas, as the masses realize they have had their freedoms destroyed, their economy wrecked, their children’s education shattered, their small business bankrupted for no reason, And, that by forbidding early treatment of this most treatable illness (if treatment is given at first symptom, rather than the advice to do nothing till hospitalization is required) 85% of all the deaths were un-necessary.

At first symptoms if Ivermectin,Hydroxychloroquine, Vitamin D, Fluxoxamine, azithromycin, zinc, and any of a dozen other proven re-purposed medicine were administered almost no one would have gone to hospital. This was forbidden though – to stop people having vaccine hesitance as all must have the vax was the word from above – so no relief other than Vax was allowed, resulting in 85% of deaths being un-necessry, and millions harmed by the vax, and $Trillions of debt created.

Watch McCullough or Malone to see the other side – hundreds of youtubes like this one are available https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3nzhgdJAZY

Gunner Myrtle
Gunner Myrtle
5 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Yes – the refusal to do anything other than flog vaccines – because it would make us hesitant- was criminal. They have created a whole generation of conspiracy theorists.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
5 months ago

I’ll never forget a visit to hospital for a scan last year. It was a warm June day but every single window was shut. We were all breathing a warm fug. But they did supply hand disinfectant every few metres!

Last edited 5 months ago by Judy Englander
James Joyce
James Joyce
5 months ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

A capital idea! Create jobs (hand sanitizer people) and show the world that the NHS is doing something to attack the problem. This will keep you safe!
Oh, wait, this was just a meaningless ritual….Oops!

Mark Goodhand
Mark Goodhand
5 months ago

I was with you until the end, but with the NHS nowhere near being overwhelmed, and almost everyone in Britain either vaccinated, previously infected, or too young to be threatened by COVID, is there even much point in measures like ventilation?

Everyone’s going to face the virus eventually. Reducing the viral load might be helpful, but ventilation isn’t cheap in the depths of winter. We’ve done what we reasonably can to reduce deaths (and then some). A return to Old Normal is overdue.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
5 months ago
Reply to  Mark Goodhand

Creating new buildings with windows that open instead of air conditioning would be beneficial in all sorts of ways. So would not packing people into trains like sardines. A return to a healthy environment with plenty of fresh air is a benefit. If people are cold they should wear more clothes.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
5 months ago

A fantastic article. One thing: the “Nature” article in Tom Chivers’ link says that even the common cold is not spread through contaminated surfaces – at least those common colds caused by rhinoviruses. The lack of understanding in the scientific community about the transmission of such common diseases is shocking.

Last edited 5 months ago by Lennon Ó Náraigh
Tom Watson
Tom Watson
5 months ago

Re miasma theory, I remember reading a very interesting history about a year ago of how the current paradigm of disease spread was developed. If this account was correct, it was literally formulated by some 19th century American as a ‘scientific’ alternative to the ridiculous medieval miasma theory. It was an article of faith in this paradigm that any disease that doesn’t spread via the fecal-oral route must spread via ‘droplets’ heavy enough to fall to the ground within 2m or so (hence 2m social distancing), rather than floating in the air like the stupid medievals thought. There was no proof of this, it was all carried through by the sheer force with which it was insisted and the conviction of all the other scientists at the time that the medievals must have been wrong because they were medieval and therefore cannot have been right. The whole thing reeks of epicycles, frankly.
Meanwhile, the medievals just went ‘if you spend time around sick people you tend to get sick, maybe there’s something in the air?’ and turned out to be correct.

Bashar Mardini
Bashar Mardini
5 months ago

“Instead, what we should be doing is improving ventilation, keeping windows open and meeting outdoors where possible. ”
Or, we should recognize that no amount of measures will ever contain the virus, that vaccination has paid out the maximum benefit it will, and that Omicron will smash through everything anyway
The pandemic is over

rodney foy
rodney foy
5 months ago
Reply to  Bashar Mardini

Some scientists suspect there may be another wave of Omicron in early summer as immunity wears off – including from infections. I’ve no idea if this will happen or not, but I think vaccines should be reserved for the most vulnerable, as with flu.

My immunity from the third jab in late November is well and truly gone now, but at least the cases are plummeting, except in NE England.

If I was infected without symptoms I’d be safe for a while longer

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago

Streeck’s interview had a big impact on me. He also did an updated IFR in that interview which was very low. I quoted him widely in my attempts to move people from their obsessive support of hard general lockdowns.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
5 months ago

In the last couple of years, whenever I felt poorly and take a dose from my handy horse de-wormer tube, I carefully sanatize it with an alcohol wipe, so it will not re-infect me at a later date. I got this handy and reasonable advice from the CDC column on how to safely re-purpose veterinarian medicines in the war on covid.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Reinfect you from what?

Jon Game
Jon Game
5 months ago

Won’t be long before the “masks do nothing” revelation that was pretty bloody obvious from the moment people started sewing their own masks in 2020.

Last edited 5 months ago by Jon Game
John Riordan
John Riordan
5 months ago

“Instead, what we should be doing is improving ventilation, keeping windows open and meeting outdoors where possible. ”

Tom, would you mind explaining this to the morons of Insulate Britain who tried to bring the country to a standstill earlier this year in protest that we were failing to do precisely the opposite in the name of saving energy?

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
5 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

That will appeal to their mates in Extinction O’Billions

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
5 months ago

When you breathe out normally it emerges as an inverse emulsion, also known as an aerosol. In a simplistic way this is like a solution of water vapour in air. You can see this when people breathe out in cold air; this fogging is caused because the air emerging from the body is warmer than the surroundings.

As a PhD student, my supervisor was a world expert on aerosols and he had a big tank about 2m long. He pumped out coloured warmer aerosol into the tank and you could watch it rise – warmer air rises. This is where the 2m idea comes from. If somebody breathes out, the aerosol is probably above your head by the time it reaches you. A mask on either person makes little difference.

But, if someone coughs, it is different. The cough can push out actual droplets of water, not an aerosol. The droplets are heavier than air and they sink quickly. If you are 2m away you are probably safe but if you are closer than 2m you can get a blast of droplets in your face. Better that the person who coughs (or shouts or anything that propels droplets of water) wears a mask to contain those droplets.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
5 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I remember that early in the Covid time, people used to deliveries from Tesco and put the packs into the washing machine. They had read that surfaces could hold the live virus for days. I remember someone saying that copper was the best (for not holding the live virus) and there was a proposal that all handrails in public transport in New Zealand should immediately be converted to copper.

Today that seems like a joke but there are still some issues. If you put down your supermarket basket after use and your hands are sweaty, arguably in that sweat exists some of your DNA and the virus can live on this for a while. There will be a time when the virus could be active after someone has sweated onto the surface. It could be a few seconds or a few minutes but it will be a finite time.

Jon Game
Jon Game
5 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Who actually coughs at other people? “Wow, lucky this cloth caught all my infected particles that I involuntarily sprayed in your direction”.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
5 months ago
Reply to  Jon Game

I always cover my mouth and turn aside when coughing or sneezing, rather than just blast someone in the face. I did not know I am unique in this.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Just saw your post after I posted the same thing,

Sue Whorton
Sue Whorton
5 months ago
Reply to  Jon Game

No one with an imagination. When I was young, TB and diphtheria were in their last throws of being a major public health issue. No one spat and everyone controlled their coughs into hankies. Spitting pre Covid was back and coughing on public transport less controlled. I am vicariously proud of what happened in Oxford early on with signing people up for trials, including very cheap steroids available world wide affordbly, rather than expensive antivirals from Pfizer. What is big Pharma doing about new antibiotics or other antibacterials as the antibiotic resistance health crisis is approaching rapidly.

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
5 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Brownian motion?

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
5 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I don’t and never have coughed and sneezed in people’s faces. At this rate you will have people in masks forever.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
5 months ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Why is preventing the spread of an endemic cold virus necessary? That is how we will build and retain our immunity.

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
5 months ago

When all else fail, I do a rain dance to awaken the Rain spirit. This is how humans operate. That is why we have religions and prayers. The whole human culture is built on rituals.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
5 months ago
Reply to  Vijay Kant

Jan 23 – this is the Global covid response day when people all over the globe will hold massed protests.

J Bryant
J Bryant
5 months ago

The covid narrative is clearly changing. Governments have realized their economy, and country, won’t survive eternal lockdowns. Even the Australian PM is openly rejecting lockdowns for omicron except in the direst emergency. He’s using wartime language such as “Facing the enemy.” That’s a heck of a turnaround for Australia.
There’s an article in this edition of Unherd discussing an Observer article criticizing lockdowns as a pandemic strategy. The public’s had enough and the politicians know it. The journos are, as usual, one step behind the times in their reporting.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
5 months ago

Oooh don’t frighten the Coronaphobics? … might melt their sorbo rubber backbones?

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
5 months ago

I became acutely aware that many, many people are unhygienic superspreaders well before C-19 reared its ugly head. The great unwashed would swarm though the hospital doors, not just at visiting time, pawing and slobbering over pristine patients, to sprawl on freshly starched, correctly cornered linen, wafting bunches of crysanthymums and worse into fetid vases etc – don’t get me started on what they brought in on their shoes – my horrified countenance betraying the knowledge that the day of complete antibiotic resistance was hastening on. Now THAT will make covid look puny.
Only the uninformed would minimise that many enveloped viruses and bacteria survive finitely on a variety of surfaces, especially hands. To insist ‘please wash you hands before visiting’, ‘please don’t wipe your nose on your clothes (we used to call it the rhinitis salute)’ and ‘no work attire – please don PPE’ invites offence. I’m glad I no longer work for the NHS – my ocd wouldn’t be able to cope.

David Barnett
David Barnett
5 months ago

Just because the chief mode of transmission is airborne (which must be the case for Covid-omicron to be as infectious as it is) does not mean that surfaces are not also a mode.
Arguably, our obsessiveness about surfaces enhanced the importance of the airborne mode.
Surface mode transmission is one of many reasons why the mask mandates were and are counterproductive.

Bill W
Bill W
5 months ago

Looking after a very old, sick and extremely vulnerable relative, I was freaked out about COVID as soon as it appeared on my radar during the first week of January 2020. It seems highly likely to me based on what it wa that the virus would spread through the air. I was, IMO, reasonably very sceptical about the initial information coming out from China and also sceptical about the info coming from the WHO. And I couldn’t believe how our Government initially handled the crisis. I had to arrange to put said relative into a care home with medical care and was worried there would be an embargo from the outset to protect existing residents and staff.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
5 months ago

And the ridiculous masks are equally pointless.

Will R
Will R
5 months ago

Well said

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
5 months ago

we still think it does so by touching things.

Do we?
Or just do it because it is expected?

Morry Rotenberg
Morry Rotenberg
5 months ago

How long will it take for Biden to withdraw vaccine mandates since his CDC director has stated publicly that those who have been vaccinated can still transmit the infection. In other words vaccines don’t stop the virus from spreading.

Ruth Tudor
Ruth Tudor
5 months ago

You talk as though COVID is the only infectious disease. Most gram-positive bacteria, such as Enterococcus spp. (including VRE), Staphylococcus aureus (including MRSA), or Streptococcus pyogenes, survive for months on dry surfaces. Many gram-negative species, such as Acinetobacter spp., Escherichia coli, Klebsiella spp., Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Serratia marcescens, or Shigella spp., can also survive for months. A few others, such as Bordetella pertussis, Haemophilus influenzae, Proteus vulgaris, or Vibrio cholerae, persist for days. Mycobacteria, including Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and spore-forming bacteria, including Clostridium difficile, can also survive for months on surfaces. Candida albicans as the most important nosocomial fungal pathogen can survive up to 4 months on surfaces. Persistence of other yeasts, such as Torulopsis glabrata, was described to be similar (5 months) or shorter (Candida parapsilosis, 14 days). Most viruses from the respiratory tract, such as corona, coxsackie, influenza, SARS or rhino virus, can persist on surfaces for a few days. Viruses from the gastrointestinal tract, such as astrovirus, HAV, polio- or rota virus, persist for approximately 2 months. Blood-borne viruses, such as HBV or HIV, can persist for more than one week. Herpes viruses, such as CMV or HSV type 1 and 2, have been shown to persist for up to 7 days. So cleaning surfaces and hands looks like an excellent idea to me.

Marek Nowicki
Marek Nowicki
5 months ago

….and the halve life in the air is in minutes. Moisture dependent

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
5 months ago

Oh crap I thought It didn’t. If Chivers is saying it doesn’t I better look at that again.

Last edited 5 months ago by Dennis Boylon