As China grapples with its biggest spike in Covid cases yet, the government’s decision to keep pushing the narrative that surfaces pose a significant risk of infection means time and money is being put into the wrong things during a crisis, scientists say. Measures to stop airborne transmission are far more effective.
The policy of prioritizing disinfection is part of a broader state-controlled narrative that is politicizing the health crisis and aiming to legitimize the government’s response. It also plays into China’s favorite narrative about the origin of Covid: that it could have been imported into Wuhan through frozen food.
Different pandemic paths
The scientific debate about how much surfaces contribute to the spread of Covid is all but over internationally. A University of Michigan study published in April 2022 in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, for example, estimated that the chance of contracting Covid from a contaminated surface is 1 in 100,000 – far below that of researchers risk suggested as tolerable.
And while the risk isn’t zero, the vast majority of public health officials, including the World Health Organization, have ruled that it’s too low to justify active measures other than recommending handwashing. Outside of China, most countries long ago gave up encouraging people to disinfect things to avoid Covid. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their guidelines a full two years ago, in May 2020, to reflect the fact that they are mostly unnecessary.
Instead, the overwhelming consensus is that aerosols and droplets transmit the virus much more easily than surfaces. In fact, the same April 2022 study from Michigan found that airborne transmission is 1,000 times more likely than surface transmission.
“People only have the bandwidth to implement so many health-protecting behaviors. It’s ideal for them to focus on the things that will have the greatest impact on reducing their risks,” says Amy Pickering, assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. “And that would be mask wearing, social distancing, avoiding crowded indoor spaces.”
The media and government in China often point to the research to justify ongoing fears of surface transmission. Studies conducted by researchers in Hong Kong, Japan and Australia have found that Covid viruses can survive on various surfaces for days or weeks.
But many haven’t been peer-reviewed, and these lab results don’t reflect real life anyway, says Ana K. Pitol, a postdoctoral researcher at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the UK. “Of course, if you put a giant droplet in a medium that protects the virus and you put it in a container and you put it in an incubator, it’s going to survive for many days, sometimes even weeks,” she says. “But the question we should be asking is how long it will survive in a realistic situation.”