All over the world, workers are soaping, wiping and fumigating surfaces with an urgent sense of purpose: to fight the coronavirus. But scientists increasingly say that there is little to no evidence that contaminated surfaces can spread the virus. In crowded indoor spaces like airports, they say, the virus that is exhaled by infected people and that lingers in the air is a much greater threat.
A range of respiratory ailments, including the common cold and influenza, are caused by germs that can spread from contaminated surfaces. So when the coronavirus outbreak emerged last winter in the Chinese mainland, it seemed logical to assume that these so-called fomites were a primary means for the pathogen to spread.
By October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which had maintained since May that surfaces are “not the primary way the virus spreads,” was saying that transmission of infectious respiratory droplets was the “principal mode” through which it does.
But by then, paranoia about touching anything from handrails to grocery bags had taken off. And the instinct to scrub surfaces as a Covid precaution — “hygiene theater,” as The Atlantic magazine called it — was already deeply ingrained.