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Can coronavirus only live up to 9 days on objects, as Kenyan traders claim?

This article is more than 3 years old

  • In pressuring the Kenyan government to lift the ban on second-hand clothes imports, a lobby group said clothes ship for an average of 45 days but the Covid-19 virus cannot survive that long, and so the imports pose no health risks.

  • Evidence shows the SARS-CoV-2 virus’s survival is similar to SARS-CoV-1, which causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, and ranges from two hours to nine days.

  • Experts say the virus is unlikely to survive on textiles beyond one to two days, and definitely not longer than nine days.

Kenyan officials are under pressure to rescind a ban on imports of second-hand clothes, popularly known in the country as “mitumba”.

The government imposed the ban in March 2020, citing the Covid-19 pandemic

In 2019 the country imported 184,555 tonnes of second-hand clothing with an estimated value of KSh17.8 billion, according to official data.  It was one of the country’s top 20 imports.

Second-hand clothes dealers have criticised the ban as harsh, arguing that imported garments do not pose a public health risk.

“The latest scientific advice indicates that the importation of second-hand garments and shoes into Kenya poses no credible public health risk,” said Teresia Njenga, the chairperson of the Mitumba Association of Kenya.

This is because the goods are shipped “for 45 days on average” and in “sealed containers,” she told reporters in July 2020.

“The scientific evidence concludes that the Covid-19 virus cannot survive on an inanimate object for more than nine days. Additionally, in the period since March, the World Health Organization has not prohibited the movement of goods or commodities as a measure to contain the spread of Covid-19,” Njenga said.

We checked if the evidence fits these claims.

(Note: We have asked the organisation for the source of its claim on how long the new coronavirus survives and will update this report with their response.)

Survival of Covid-19 on surfaces similar to other coronaviruses

According to a team of global health experts at the Meedan Digital Health Lab, SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes Covid-19, can survive from three hours to seven days. The lab works to simplify health and medical science.

According to April 2020 guidance by the World Health Organization, or WHO, the survival of the virus “on surfaces is similar to that of SARS-CoV1, the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars)”. This ranges from two hours to nine days.

To support this observation, WHO cited two studies. Africa Check contacted two of the experts involved. 

Typically little risk beyond 1-2 days, says expert

Dr Vincent Munster, chief of the virus ecology unit at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, co-authored an April 2020 paper, Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1. 

The paper found that SARS-CoV-2 remained viable for similar durations as SARS-CoV-1, the virus which causes Sars

Munster told Africa Check that there was “no risk associated with the importation of these or other goods”. This is because “typically SARS-CoV-2 cannot survive more than one or two days”.

‘Quite certain’ no risk of virus survival past 9 days

Dr Günter Kampf, professor at the Institute for Hygiene and Environmental Medicine at the University of Greifswald in Germany, co-authored a paper titled Persistence of coronaviruses on inanimate surfaces and their inactivation with biocidal agents. 

Published in February 2020, it found that the SARS-CoV virus survived for six to nine days on plastic at room temperature. “We expect a similar effect against the SARS-CoV-2,” the paper concluded.

Kampf told Africa Check that the information remained the same since the paper was published. “To my knowledge, a maximum of nine days is still correct,” he said.

Kampf referred us to a June 2020 paper on textiles, How long can nosocomial pathogens survive on textiles? A systematic review.

(Note: According to the WHO, nosocomial infections are those “acquired in hospital by a patient who was admitted for a reason other than that infection”.)

The paper found that a coronavirus which is a clinical isolate of the SARS coronavirus survived on a cotton gown for 24 hours. The paper however did not specify how long coronaviruses survived on synthetic fibres or mixed and other fibres.

Kampf told Africa Check that with all the data currently published, he was “quite certain” that the Covid-19 virus could only survive a maximum of nine days on all material tested.

Conclusion: Evidence Covid-19 won’t survive longer than nine days on textiles

In pushing for the lifting of  a ban on imports of second-hand clothes into Kenya, an industry lobby said that scientific evidence shows the Covid-19 virus cannot survive on an inanimate object for more than nine days.

The government stopped the popular imports in March 2020, citing the risk of infection with the new coronavirus. 

Research relied on by the World Health Organization and experts support the second-hand-clothing lobby’s claim. We therefore rate it correct. 

Further reading:

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