THE OMICRON VARIANT OF COVID-19 appears to survive twice as long on surfaces as the original coronavirus strain from Wuhan, China. What are the implications in terms of spreading through touch?
Let’s explore recent research findings suggesting that the Omicron variant remains on the skin, paper, and plastics for longer than historical strains of the virus.
First, a caveat: The two research studies we will discuss Omicron examine virus staying power on surfaces, but under artificial circumstances.
Omicron and surfaces
Some preprints provide some guidance but remember that they have been posted online before a review by outside experts and publication.
Japanese researchers took viruses from each significant COVID-19 variant in the first study. After concentrating and purifying the samples, they spread the viruses on squares of plastic and human cadaver skin. The scientists kept the samples in warm air (approximately 77 degrees F).
Here are the results of the Japanese study:
- On plastic, the original Wuhan strain lived for about 56 hours.
- Most of the other variants tested (Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Omicron) survived more than three times as long. Omicron could be detected eight days after application.
- The more recent variants lasted more than twice as long as the original Wuhan strain on the skin. Researchers detected the Omicron variant after 21 hours, compared with eight hours for the Wuhan variant.
The second study
Hong Kong researchers spread samples of the original strain of the COVID-19 virus and the Omicron variant on squares of glass, paper, plastic, and stainless steel. Let’s look at the results:
The original virus survived two days on plastic and stainless steel and approximately four days on glass. The Omicron variant survived about seven days on those surfaces and survived longer on printer paper and tissue.
Omicron and surfaces — Should you be worried?
The primary mode of Omicron transmission is close contact and aerosol. Professor of Public Health Dr. Leo Poon of Hong Kong University reminds us:
“Omicron is still mainly transmitted by close contact and aerosol. We want to highlight that we should also pay attention to hand hygiene and disinfection of contaminated surfaces.”
I will continue to focus my cleaning (or avoidance) on places frequently touched by others, including door handles, elevator buttons, and handrails. The authors note that the team studied Omicron BA.1 and not the newer BA.2.
Are these studies perfect? No, they did not occur in real-life conditions. Viruses outside the lab don’t get to lounge in warm room air. Still, Omicron appears hardier than earlier COVID-19 viruses.
Fortunately, you can break the transfer of virus from surfaces into your nose or mouth. You know what you need to do: Wash your hands.