Considering the role of environmental contamination in the spread of COVID-19

We know that respiratory viruses can be spread through droplets, occasionally aerosols, and contact routes (see Figure 1). But what is the relative importance of these transmission routes for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19? A new pre-print paper published yesterday provides evidence that the stability of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is broadly comparable to the ‘original’ SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV-1) on dry surfaces and in aerosols. This paper supports an important role for dry surface contamination and aerosols in the spread of SARS-CoV-2, and suggests that improved environmental persistence isn’t the key to the relative success of SARS-CoV-2 over SARS-CoV-1.

Figure 1: Transmission routes of respiratory viruses (from this review article).

covid transmission routes

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Hello Novel Coronavirus

As I’m sure you’ve heard (unless you’ve been living under a rock), there’s something going on in China: a Novel Coronavirus has been identified, associated with an outbreak affecting 44 people (one of whom has died and a small number of whom are critically unwell) in Wuhan Providence, China. Here’s what we know so far:

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MERS joins the more-environmental-than-you-may-think club

mers

I blogged about a review of the surprising ability of some respiratory viruses (especially SARS-CoV and Influenza virus) to survive on dry surfaces last year. In the review, I predicted that MERS-Cov would also share the same ability to survive on dry surfaces as SARS-CoV – so I was interested to see a recent article in CID demonstrating that MERS is indeed more environmental than you may think.

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Surface contamination and respiratory viruses with pandemic potential (SARS, MERS and influenza): an underestimated reservoir?

Droplet airborne direct and indirect contact figure_final

Most virologists would probably tell you that enveloped viruses are generally pretty fragile outside of their host and so wouldn’t survive for long on dry surfaces. They may well say “If you were talking about a non-enveloped virus (like norovirus) then, yes, it would probably survive on surfaces for quite a while. But enveloped viruses, no – you’d be lucky if it survived for more than a few hours.” But when I looked at the literature to investigate the potential for dry surface-mediated transmission of respiratory viruses with pandemic potential (SARS, MERS and influenza), the picture that emerged was quite different. These respiratory viruses can survive on dry surfaces for ages, and the contaminated environment may well be an underestimated reservoir for their transmission. This is summarised in a review published recently in the Journal of Hospital Infection.

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Reflections from Infection Prevention 2015 Part I: Beating the bugs

time person of the year

Infection Prevention 2015, the annual conference of IPS, was held in Liverpool this year. I’m delighted to say that the abstracts from the submitted science are published Open Access in the Journal of Infection Prevention. This first instalment of my report will be “bug-focussed”, followed by another two on different themes:

Part I: Beating the bugs

Part II: Improving the systems

Part III: Thinking outside the box

Opening lectures

The conference kicked off with fellow ‘Reflections’ blogger Prof Andreas Voss. By Andreas’ own admission, he was given a curve-ball of a title: ‘CRE, VRE, C. difficle or MRSA: what should be the priority of infection prevention?’ [No idea where that could have come from…] Andreas developed a framework for grading the priority of our microbial threats, accounting for transmissibility, virulence, antibiotic resistance, at-risk patients, feasibility of decolonisation, cost, and impact of uncontrolled spread. And the result? Any and all microbes that cause HCAI should be a priority of infection prevention. Even those that seem to have less clinical impact (such as VRE) are good indicators of system failure. If we focus too much on one threat, we risk losing sight of the bigger picture.

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Christmas 2014 Update

Christmas lights

Now that you have digested your Christmas turkey, I thought that it would be a good time to send out an update. These articles have been posted since the last update:

I’m in a rather reflective mood, so time to remind you of some of the key themes from 2014: Ebola, MERS-CoV, universal vs. targeted interventions, faecal microbiota transplantation (FMT), whole genome sequencing (WGS), carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), and some interesting developments in environmental science. And what will we be still talking about come Christmas 2015? Let’s hope it won’t be Ebola, and I think that WGS will be a lab technique akin to a Vitek machine rather than subject matter for NEJM. But I think we still have ground to cover on whether to go for universal or targeted interventions, FMT, and improving our study designs in infection prevention and control. I can also foresee important studies on the comparative and cost-effectiveness of the various tools at our disposal.

And finally, before I sign off for 2014, a classic BMJ study on why Rudolf’s nose is red (it’s to do with the richly vascularised nasal microcirculation of the reindeer nose, apparently).

Image: Christmas #27.

What’s trending in the infection prevention and control literature? HIS 2012 -> HIS 2014

I was privileged to speak at the Healthcare Infection Society meeting in France today on ‘What’s trending in the infection prevention and control literature? HIS 2012 -> HIS 2014’. You can download my slides here, and view the recording below:

I have always enjoyed attending these light-hearted summary sessions at other conferences, so I hope I struck the right tone. In order to track some of the trends in the infection prevention and control literature since the last HIS conference (in late 2012), I plugged some search terms into Google trends (Figure).

Figure: Google Trends for all search terms (excluding viruses) (2004 to present). Logos and arrows represent the time of the HIS 2012 and HIS 2014 conferences. Search terms: hospital cleaning; carbapenem resistant Enterobacteriaceae, whole genome sequencing, fecal microbiota transplantation. [Note, I had to spell it ‘wrong’ (fecal v faecal) to detect a trend. Blasted Americans.]what's trending google trends

Based on my search terms, there was one infection control trend that trumped all others: Ebola. If I include in with the other Google search terms, it eclipses all others! Whilst trends in Google searches may not necessarily correlate with trends in the infection prevention and control literature, in this case, it is true that the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa has prompted a lot of publications in the literature – and consumed an awful lot of professional time for all who are connected with hospital infection prevention and control! Aside from Ebola, other trends in the infection prevention and control literature that I covered include MERS-CoV, universal vs. targeted interventions, faecal microbiota transplantation, whole genome sequencing, carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), and some aspects of environmental science. Finally, I looked into my crystal ball and predict some of the trends in the infection prevention and control literature by the time HIS 2016 comes around.

Summer 2014 Update

summer 2014

It’s been another busy quarter on the blog, with some updates from ECCMID and APIC, the inaugural ‘Journal Roundup’ plus a few key studies.

Please keep your responses coming – and let me know if you’d like to contribute a guest blog!

Photo: ‘Summer’ by Matteo Angelino

Inaugural ‘Journal Roundup’ (June 2014)

JHI

I’ve been asked by the Editor of the Journal of Hospital Infection to begin writing a monthly column providing an overview of key updates in the infection prevention and control literature. I’m pleased to say that the first edition (June 2014) is now available on the Journal of Hospital Infection website, and I’m delighted that the Journal Roundup is open access.

I thought it would be useful to outline how I produced this roundup. I began by scanning the tables of contents of the following journals, pulling out articles of interest: AJIC, Ann Intern Med, BMJ, CID, ICHE, JAMA, JAMA Intern Med, JHI, JID, JIP, Lancet, Lancet ID, NEJM. This was easy for the “big five” (Lancet, BMJ, AIM, JAMA and NEJM) because only a handful of articles are directly relevant. It was more tricky for the specialist journals, since all articles are likely to be of interest. I’ve tried to avoid focusing solely on my own research interests, but these doubtless come through. One way to mitigate this in future is for others to provide a Journal Roundup now and then – or at least make some contribution. If you’re interested in this, please do let me know.

Highlights of this inaugural issue include a spike in MERS-CoV cases, coverage of the WHO report on antimicrobial resistance, more evidence that faecal microbiota transplantation works for curing recurrent CDI, the impact of nursing education on patient mortality, individualized antibiotic dosing, CA-MRSA in US Fire Stations, a successful community-based hand hygiene intervention, an outbreak of CRE in Ireland, updated SHEA guidelines for SSI and CDI, the identification of ‘optimum outlier’ (aka ‘positive deviant’) cleaners, a disturbing patient story, an update on the move towards ‘bare below the elbow’ in the US, an overview of the regulatory environment for healthcare apps, conference abstracts from APIC and ECCMID, and the use of Yelp (a customer review website) to identify cases that would otherwise have gone unreported during a foodborne outbreak.

Please feel free to share this with your colleagues, and let me know if you have any thoughts or comments.

 

MERS-CoV: a survival guide for you and your patients

This time last week, we were on red alert that a MERS-CoV pandemic was gathering pace. The news over the last few days has been more encouraging, with no new cases reported in Saudi Arabia, the epicenter of the MERS-CoV cases. However, there are still plenty of patients with MERS-CoV who need to be cared for around the world. Like SARS-CoV, but unlike the “usual suspects” that cause HCAI such as MRSA and C. difficile, MERS-CoV has the capacity to affect both healthcare workers and patients. Thus, I hope that this ‘survival guide’ will prove useful to those on the front line.

I presented a webinar on ‘MERS-CoV: coming to a hospital near you? Infection prevention and control challenges’. You can download the slides here. I came across a fantastic blog whilst preparing the webinar: ‘Virology Down Under’ by Dr Ian Mackay. I’ve used some of his excellent images in the slides, with his kind permission.

There are two transmission routes to consider for MERS-CoV: droplet / aerosol and contact / fomite. CDC recommends both airborne and contact isolation procedures to reflect these transmission routes. This involves placement of the patient in a negative pressure airborne infection isolation room, and the use of gloves, gowns, eye protection and N95 (FFP3) mask, and, of course, hand hygiene. PHE recommends a similar approach.

First and foremost, as a respiratory virus, inhalation of infected droplets is likely to be the most important transmission route. However, whilst not an ‘airborne’ virus (such as measles), aerosols can be generated by MERS-CoV patients that comprise small droplet nuclei that travel for long distances. A recent study of influenza suggests that the generation of aerosols is surprisingly common, to the extent that ‘living and breathing is an aerosol generating procedure’. Indeed, a recent study showed that a MERS-CoV aerosol diminished by only 7% over 10 minutes (compared with 95% for influenza). The use of an N95 (FFP3) mask will prevent direct inhalation of droplets / aerosols, and gloves, gowns and eye protection will prevent contact with mucous membranes and contamination of clothing or hands for subsequent nasal inoculation. But, if MERS-CoV aerosol is generated in the patient’s room (which seems likely), how long will it last and will the subsequent admission to the next room be at risk?

Let’s assume a patient sheds a MERS-CoV infectious aerosol of 6-log. I’m not aware of any infectious dose data for MERS-CoV yet, but for SARS-CoV it can be as low as <20 plaque forming units. Given the decay rate of 7% over 10 minutes, infectious aerosol above the infectious dose could be present after the discharge of the patient for a little under 26 hours! Even if the virus was shed at a lower titre, infectious aerosol times would still be considerable (Table). Could this be a job for automated room disinfection systems, which address both surface and airborne contamination? One such system, hydrogen peroxide vapour, has recently been shown to inactivate the SARS-CoV surrogate, TGEV.

Shed titre Time to reach 20 virus particles
1000000 26 hours
100000 20 hours
10000 15 hours
1000 9 hours
100 4 hours

Table: Relationship between shed titre of MERS-CoV and time to reach 20 virus particles.

Whilst respiratory viruses are not that great at surviving on surfaces compared with C. difficile spores and some vegetative bacteria, they can survive long enough to bring contact / fomite transmission into play. A number of reviews have concluded that contact / fomite transmission is an important route for influenza and other respiratory viruses such as rhinovirus. The SARS-CoV and surrogates exhibit unusual survival properties compared with other respiratory viruses, with survival times often measured in days, weeks or even months. Recent data suggests that MERS-CoV shares this property, surviving for >2 days when dried onto hard surfaces compared with only a few hours for influenza tested in the same study. Fortunately, these enveloped viruses are inactivated rapidly by usual hospital disinfectants, so I can understand the CDC’s recommendation for standard environmental disinfection.

So, how to protect yourself and your patients? The answer is simple for direct patient care: wear your gown, gloves, goggles and N95 (FFP3) mask, and wash your hands! It’s simple in theory, compliance with these measures in practice is not as good as you may expect. Prof Seto published a study in the Lancet in 2003 about compliance with personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand hygiene during the SARS epidemic. Remarkably, even when caring for patients known to be infected with SARS, <30% of healthcare workers self-reported that they wore a mask, glove, gown and washed their hands as they should have done. And this was self-reported, so you’d expect there to be a bias towards compliance! Most importantly, none of the healthcare workers who complied with all four measures became infected.

Seto Lancet SARS PPE

Figure: Healthcare worker compliance with mask, glove, gown use, and hand washing during the SARS epidemic, stratified by those who became infected with SARS.

To summarise: how to protect you and your patients from MERS-CoV:

  • Place patient in negative pressure airborne infection isolation room, where available.
  • Wear the correct PPE when in the room (gloves, gown, N95 / FFP3 mask, goggles), and wash your hands.
  • Pay attention to the potential for contaminated surfaces and air, particularly following the discharge of the patient.
  • Oh, and if you go on holiday to Saudi Arabia, don’t kiss any camels!