A study by Australia's national science agency, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), found that in a tightly controlled environment (in the dark and at room temperature), the virus remained infectious for longer than in previous lab tests.
Scientists said that at 20 degrees Celsius, the virus was "extremely robust", surviving up to a month on smooth surfaces such as the glass found on mobile phone screens, both plastic and paper banknotes, and stainless steel.
The study, published in Virology Journal, also found that the virus lasted 10 days longer than influenza, highlighting the importance of washing hands and sanitising wherever possible to combat the disease. "Establishing how long the virus really remains viable on surfaces enables us to more accurately predict and mitigate its spread, and do a better job of protecting our people," said Dr Larry Marshall, the chief executive of CSIRO.
The study's authors said the ability of SARS-CoV-2 (the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19) to persist on stainless steel at cooler temperatures could explain outbreaks of COVID-19 at meat processing and cold storage facilities. This comes as thousands of factory workers across the country tested positive for COVID-19, including nearly 300 at a Northampton factory that makes sandwiches for M&S and a further 72 at a dessert factory in Nottinghamshire.
However, all experiments were conducted in the dark to remove the impact of ultraviolet light, as research has shown that direct sunlight can kill the virus. "So in the real world results would likely be shorter than what we were able to show," the study's lead researcher Shane Riddell told news agency Reuters.
So should we be concerned by the findings? Apparently not. While this study does confirm previous work showing that SARS-CoV-2 can survive as an infectious virus for up to 24 hours on surfaces such as glass, stainless steel and banknotes, professor of molecular oncology Lawrence S Young of Warwick University's Medical School says it's not something new. "This study suggests that touchscreen devices such as mobile phones could pose a transmission risk," he tells Refinery29. "However, we know that the vast majority of virus infection is due to close contact between people and there are no well-documented cases of infection from contact with surfaces."
Professor Lawrence S Young adds that the study just reinforces the need for regular hand washing and for cleaning surfaces, "in particular surfaces that might have come into contact with highly infectious individuals." Mobile phones, statistically speaking, are very dirty – sometimes dirtier than a public toilet seat. If you're worried about coronavirus, you should get into the habit of cleaning your phone using disinfectant wipes or 70% isopropyl alcohol wipes to clean the display, keyboard and other exterior surfaces.
The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. It says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don't get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.