As China struggles with the largest increase in human cases in history, the government’s decision to continue pushing the story that surfaces pose a significant risk of infection means investing time and money in the wrong things during the crisis, scientists say. Stopping measures air transmission are far more efficient.
The policy of prioritizing disinfection is part of a broader state-controlled narrative that politicizes the health crisis and is designed to legitimize the government’s response. It also plays in China’s favorite narrative about the origin of the covid: that it could have been imported into Wuhan via frozen food.
Divergent pathways of the pandemic
The scientific debate on the extent to which areas contribute to the spread of covids is fairly complete internationally. For example, a study from the University of Michigan, published in April 2022 in the Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiologyestimated that the chance of contracting covid from a contaminated area was 1 in 100,000 – well below the reference value suggested researchers as a tolerable risk.
And while the risk is not zero, the vast majority of public health bodies, including the World Health Organization, they ruled that it is too low to justify active measures other than a handwashing recommendation. Outside of China, most countries have long since given up encouraging people to disinfect things as a way to avoid covid. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines two years ago, in May 2020, to reflect the fact that it is mostly unnecessary.
Instead, there is a greater consensus that aerosols and droplets transmit the virus much more easily than surfaces. Indeed, the same study from Michigan from April 2022 showed that air transmission is 1000 times more probable than surface transmission.
“People only have bandwidth for so many protective health behaviors. Ideally, they should 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 wearing masks, social distancing, avoiding crowded enclosed spaces.”
The media and government in China often point to research to justify the constant fear of surface transmission. Studies conducted by researchers in Hong Kong, Japan and Australia have found that Covid viruses can survive days or weeks on various surfaces.
But many have not been reviewed, and in any case, these laboratory results do not reflect real life, says Ana K. Pitol, a postdoctoral researcher at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the UK. “If you put a huge drop in a medium that protects the virus, and put it in a container, and put it in an incubator, of course, it will survive for many days, sometimes even weeks,” she says. “But the question we should ask is how long does it last in a real situation.”