But half a year later, Goldman looks oracular. Since last spring, the CDC has expanded its guidance to clarify that the coronavirus “spreads less commonly through contact with contaminated surfaces.” In the past month, the leading scientific journal Nature published both a long analysis and a sharp editorial reiterating Goldman’s thesis. “A year into the pandemic, the evidence is now clear,” the editorial begins. “Catching the virus from surfaces—although plausible—seems to be rare.”
[Read: The mutated coronavirus is a ticking time bomb]
When I reached Goldman, he sounded triumphant, if a bit exhausted by the persistence of bad information and ongoing hygiene theater in American life. “There’s been no solid evidence to change my view about the minor, if any, role of surface transmission, and there’s been more evidence that I was right,” Goldman told me.
Still, scare-stories about surface transmission abound. In October, a paper by Australian researchers found that virus particles can survive almost a month on surfaces. That finding circumnavigated the globe, making headlines in The Guardian, Al Jazeera, the BBC, NBC, ABC. The opening paragraph in Reuters’s coverage was typical and quite terrifying:
The virus that causes COVID-19 can survive on banknotes, glass and stainless steel for up to 28 days, much longer than the flu virus, Australian researchers said on Monday, highlighting the need for frequent cleaning and handwashing.
The Australian paper was a greatest-hits compilation of research errors, Goldman told me. “It used so many unrealistic conditions to favor the virus’s survival,” he said. “They kept samples in the dark to spare it from light that kills the virus. They used optimal temperature and humidity.” Most important, their samples included a gargantuan amount of virus—“thousands and thousands of virus particles, when the research on influenza indicates that coughs or sneezes emit something in the range of 10 to 100 virus particles in a droplet.”
By contrast, real-world experiments that test for infectious SARS-CoV-2 from hospital surfaces have shown little infectious virus. In Italy, researchers swabbed a number of surfaces in a hospital following standard cleaning procedures and found no evidence of viable virus. Following standard precautions, “SARS-CoV-2 transmission is unlikely to occur in real-life conditions,” they concluded. Another study from Israel collected viral RNA samples from surfaces in several hospitals and quarantine hotels and found that none contained infectious levels of coronavirus.
[Derek Thompson: Mask up and shut up]
To be clear: The fact that the coronavirus is much less likely to spread through surfaces does not mean that it is impossible to get the coronavirus from touching things. If somebody with COVID-19 sneezes three times onto a little spot on a cold steel table, and you rub your hand around in the snot for a bit and immediately lick your fingers, that disgusting act may well result in you infecting yourself. But the threat of such unbelievably stupid behavior at a mass level shouldn’t warrant a multibillion-dollar war on fomites. “If surface transmission happened, it would have to require touching a newly contaminated surface, then very quickly touching your eyes, nose, or mouth without washing your hands first,” Goldman allows. That’s why he strongly advocates for hand-washing with soap and warm water, but otherwise not treating surfaces during this pandemic too differently than you otherwise would.