This is why your phone is the perfect breeding ground for giving you COVID-19

Travel clusters remain the driving force behind COVID-19 transmissions.  

Carriers tend to shed the most viral debris while asymptomatic and subsequently pass the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the disease to a median of three people before its incubation cycle is concluded.

There’s a lot of evidence to support this narrative but contact tracing involves a lot of guess-work at this stage. 

Although there aren’t a whole lot of exposure assessments with respect to SARS-CoV-2 fomites and inanimate objects, we know that coronaviruses can remain active atop surfaces for days. 

With this in mind, a new study published in The Travel Medicine and Infectious Diseases Journal highlights the objects that pose the greatest risk to those of us naive to SARS-CoV-2 infection in addition to providing effective protective measures to help us remain that way.

“Mobile phones have become an integral part of modern society. As possible breeding grounds for microbial organisms, these constitute a potential global public health risk for microbial transmission,” the authors wrote in the new paper. “While this scoping review of literature regarding microbial identification on mobile phones in HC and community settings did not directly address the issue of SARS-CoV-2 responsible for COVID-19, this work exposes the possible role of mobile phones as a ‘Trojan horse’ contributing to the transmission of microbial infections in epidemics and pandemics.” 

Temperature control and hygiene 

The authors began their meta-analysis by reviewing 56 independently conducted studies in 24 different countries between January 2005 and December 2019.

This window predates the first documented communal novel coronavirus outbreak within the US.

However, examining new research on SARS-CoV-2’s stability specifically alongside papers premised by similarly-acting pathogens from the past allows us to draft necessary precautions.  

“Fomite-based transmission occurs when microorganisms from an infected individual are deposited on an inanimate object and then subsequently transmitted to a new host. Fomite-mediated transmission is a critical pathway for causing infectious disease in both community and health care settings,” the authors continued. 

Their analysis determined golden staph and E. Coli to be the most commonly found germs on people’s cell phones.

The coronavirus funding our current pandemic can live on smartphone screens for as long as 96 hours or four full days. 

There are many factors that can lengthen this value; chiefly temperature and sanitation measures. 

SARS-Cov-2 has been studied to be the most stable at 4°C. At this temperature, its fomites remain detectable after two weeks. 

Conversely,  SARS-CoV-2 experiences virus inactivation as quickly as five minutes when incubation temperatures rise to 70°C. 

“Mobile phones are five-star hotels with premium heated spas, free buffet for microbes to thrive on,” added Dr. Lotti Tajouri, an associate professor at Bond University & the study’s lead author. “They have temperature control, we keep them in our pockets, we are addicted to them. We talk into them and deposit droplets that can be full of viruses, bacteria — you name it. We eat with them, so we give nutrients to micro-organisms. And nobody — absolutely nobody – washes or decontaminates their phone.”

Products composed of 60% alcohol,  62-71%  ethanol, 0.5%  hydrogen peroxide, or 0.1 % sodium hypochlorite can deactivate infectious coronavirus material in under 60 seconds.  

Without intervention, the novel coronavirus can live on plastered walls and laminated countertop material for up to 36 hours.

On plastic and stainless steel, this value is closer to 72 hours.

On milk containers, refrigerators, pots, pans, sinks, and detergent bottles SARS-Cov-2 remains stable for roughly two to three days. 

“Our recommendation is that phones should be decontaminated daily and regularly with either 70%  isopropyl or by sanitizing with (ultraviolet) devices like PhoneSoap,” the authors conclude. “The extraordinarily fast contagion that has scientists puzzled might reside within these mobile phones spreading COVID-19 everywhere at ultra-speed. After all, they’re everywhere, traveling the world in planes, cruise ships, and trains. Let’s take that hypothesis seriously. If we clean our phones daily and this makes a difference then we might with this little action curve down the COVID-19 epidemic and save lives.”

CW Headley is a staff reporter for Ladders.