Public health and infection control experts say spraying entire towns is "a little over the top," because coronaviruses don't live long on surfaces.
- The Wuhan coronavirus has sickened more than 28,000 people, and killed at least 565, with almost all of the deaths in China.
- Chinese cities have been scrambling to contain the virus, cleaning streets, railway stations, and people with disinfectants, including bleach.
- Public health and infection control experts say the cleaning resources would be better spent focusing on wiping down hospitals and markets, since coronaviruses do not live long on hard surfaces.
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Spray trucks, hoses, and bottles filled with household disinfectants like bleach are quickly being dispatched across China, as the country scrambles to control the outbreak of the novel coronavirus known as 2019-nCoV.
The deadly virus, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December, has so far sickened more than 28,000 people in 26 countries around the globe, and killed at least 565 people (with just two deaths reported so far outside mainland China.)
Because the coronavirus is chiefly transmitted through respiratory droplets, which get passed around in an infected person's spit and mucus, China has placed around 56 million people under quarantine, hoping that keeping people home, and having them wear masks when they go outside, will help prevent more virus spread.
But in cities and towns across Asia, sanitation workers are also redoubling efforts to spray down entire towns, sending trucks filled with low concentration bleach-and-water solutions into the streets, and dispatching hazmat-suited workers into train stations and malls to wipe every nook and cranny.
—Global Times (@globaltimesnews) February 5, 2020
Keeping hospitals and markets clean is a better way to stop the spread of novel viruses
Joe Drake, president and founder of the US-based Decon Seven, said he's seen such sprayer trucks dispatched in cities including Shanghai, Beijing, and Wuhan even before the current coronavirus outbreak. (The same type of mist trucks have been used before to fight air pollution, as China Dialogue reported in 2016.)
But health experts say these public displays of germ-busting are probably not doing much to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, and that the disinfection should instead target specific spots, like emergency rooms, and communal surfaces in hospitals, where more coronavirus germs are likely to get swapped around.
For that purpose, Drake's company makes a hydrogen peroxide-based cleanup product that was originally developed to neutralize biological and chemical warfare agents, but is now being sent to at least six different hospitals around China, both inside and outside Hubei province. D7 kills viruses on hard surfaces as well as textiles for up to eight hours, before it degrades into non-potable water, making it far more long-lasting than a bleach and water spray.
"You can foam it, you can mop it, you can put some in a pail and take a rag and wipe surfaces down, or put it in a pump spray bottle, or fog it," Drake said.
In the US, his products are often used in places like poultry farms, for disinfecting before and after a new group of animals comes in to a barn. But such practices are not so widespread in China, he said.
"I was actually in Wuhan in September, I was in that market," he said of the spot where scientists suspect the novel virus originally infected a human. "You have live fish, you have dead fish, you have other animals in there ... There's no hygiene standards, they just rinse things down with a garden hose. That doesn't do anything. You're just basically creating a bacteria soup."
Virologist and bird flu expert Robert Webster agreed. He said it's time to close down wet markets around the world where animals and people often mix in cramped, unsanitary conditions, and where new viruses have successfully hopped from animals into humans before.
"One of the lessons that this incident — and SARS — tell us is that it's time to close the live animal markets in Asia, and in the United States, where we also have them," Webster said. "China is wealthy enough to close those down, completely."
Drake wasn't so sure.
"That's their culture," he said. "It's how they're used to shopping and buying things."
But there are signs that the culture may be changing. Drake's Chinese distributor, which has until now only worked with Chinese hospitals and government agencies, has started fielding more calls lately from both manufacturing and food processing plants there, interested in his disinfectant.
"China wants to do trade with the rest of the world, including their food products, so they know they have to do this," he said.
Spraying cities with bleach is not a very effective way to stop a coronavirus
Seeing lines of disinfecting spray trucks cruising the streets during an outbreak, or wearing a mask as a purely preventative measure (when you're not ill, and not in direct contact with sick people) may help give a false sense of security during an outbreak. But public health experts stress that those moves, which are minimally effective at best, can also direct money, supplies, and attention away from where it's needed most.
"The truth is that coronaviruses have really poor survivability on surfaces," Saskia Popescu, a senior infection prevention epidemiologist who works at a Phoenix-based healthcare system, told Insider. "This is an organism that is generally spread through respiratory droplets. So that cough, that sneeze, and yes, your hands can get contaminated and then you touch your eyes, your mouth, and things like that."
She said the widespread use of disinfectants like bleach — which is what was being used in truck sprayers in at least one Chinese city, Yichang, according to a local report — is "a little over the top."
"I would rather see better efforts to make sure people are disinfecting emergency rooms and high-touch surfaces in hospitals and schools more than I would want to see bleach being sprayed on streets," she said. "Honestly, think about how often do your hands or your mouth come into contact with a street?"
The bleach is not just for the streets. Patients and doctors are also being disinfected after they're released from hospitals or finish a shift.
Public health experts also say prioritizing even more basic, routine hygiene practices, including frequent handwashing with soap and water, covering coughs and sneezes, keeping a safe distance (6 feet) from sick people, and staying home when you are sick are still the most effective ways to stop a virus like this from spreading further. Coronaviruses only last several hours on surfaces at most, which is why imported goods are not going to give you an illness, but an unclean phone, a keyboard, or a doorknob could.
"Risk for transmission from spread through inanimate objects or contaminated surfaces is low," Popescu said. "It's not zero, but it's low."
Update, February 11, 2020: We've added in some new information to the story about how mist trucks have been used in the past to spray down air pollution in China.
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