Coronavirus Can Spread Through a Hospital in 10 Hours, Study Finds

The virus that causes COVID-19 is capable of spreading throughout a hospital ward in just 10 hours, according to new data gathered by researchers at University College London.

The study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection last month examined how quickly a virus strain spreads in hospital settings amid precautions taken to regularly sterilize surfaces and use personal protective equipment. In place of using SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, researchers said in a Monday news release they used a plant-based virus to imitate how the new coronavirus would act without posing unnecessary risks to hospital patients.

After researchers put the virus on the rail of a hospital bed at London's Great Ormond Street Hospital in a room designed for patients infected with COVID-19 and other contagious illnesses, they said the virus spread to 41 percent of all sampled locations within the ward after 10 hours, and to 59 percent of all sampled locations within three days.

"Our study shows the important role that surfaces play in the transmission of a virus and how critical it is to adhere to good hand hygiene and cleaning," researcher Lena Ciric said in the release. Though the plant virus showed it could spread quickly by simply existing on a surface that health care workers routinely touched, Ciric said an active human case of COVID-19 would enable traces of the virus to spread even faster as patients experienced symptoms like sneezing and coughing.

Hospital bed in UK
A bed and medical equipment and a ventilator are ready in ICU ward at the new NHS Nightingale North East hospital opened in response to the coronavirus pandemic on May 4, in Sunderland, England. According to a new study by researchers at University College London, the coronavirus is capable of spreading throughout a hospital ward within 10 hours. Ian Forsyth/Getty

"Our surrogate was inoculated once to a single site, and was spread through the touching of surfaces by staff, patients and visitors," Ciric said in the release. "A person with SARS-CoV-2, though, will shed the virus on more than one site, through coughing, sneezing and touching surfaces."

According to the study, researchers found evidence of the plant virus DNA at 86 percent of all the clinical areas they tested after three days. By the fifth day, the virus' presence in the hospital began to wane.

While hospital and emergency room visits declined nationwide as the pandemic spread across the U.S., many states began allowing elective surgeries to resume in recent weeks as restrictions that had been imposed to slow the virus' spread were loosened. With the U.S. and other countries anticipating a second wave of cases and the World Health Organization confirming Tuesday the ability of asymptomatic patients to transmit the virus is still a cause for concern, the tools health care professionals have to lock down the virus and prevent its spread—including basic routines like sanitizing surfaces and wearing protective equipment like masks and gloves—remain important.

"Cleaning and handwashing represent our first line of defense against the virus," study co-author Elaine Cloutman-Green said in the release. "This study is a significant reminder that health care workers and all visitors to a clinical setting can help stop its spread through strict hand hygiene, cleaning of surfaces, and proper use of personal protective equipment."

University of College London researchers did not respond to Newsweek's request for further comment in time for publication.