Spray trucks, pipes and bottles filled with household disinfectants like bleach are being sent across China as the country struggles to control the outbreak of the new coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV. The deadly virus, born in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, has sickened more than 28,000 people in 26 countries around the world and killed at least 565 people to date — including only two deaths outside mainland China.
Coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, which spread through the saliva and mucus of an infected person. China has quarantined about 56 million people. Authorities hope that confining people to their homes and making them wear masks when they go out will help contain the spread of the virus.
In China, health workers are redoubling their efforts to pulverize entire cities with trucks filled with disinfectant. Full-combination agents are also sent to train stations and shopping malls to clean every nook and cranny.
Keeping hospitals and markets clean is the best way to stop the spread of the virus
Joe Drake, president and founder of The American company Decon Seven (D7), said he had already seen such disinfectant spray trucks sent to cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Wuhan before the coronavirus outbreak. But health experts say these public demonstrations to combat the epidemic do not really help stem the spread of the virus. Instead, they believe that disinfection should target specific locations, such as emergency rooms and common hospital surfaces, where more germs are likely to be exchanged.
Joe Drake’s company manufactures a cleaning product based on hydrogen peroxide. Originally developed to neutralize biological and chemical warfare agents, it was sent to at least six different hospitals in China, inside and outside Hubei province. D7 kills viruses on hard surfaces as well as textiles, and acts for eight hours before degrading to non-potable water, making it much more durable than bleach.
“You can lather it, you can put it in a bucket and take a cloth to clean surfaces, or spray it,” Drake explains. In the United States, its products are used in places such as poultry farms to disinfect a chicken coop before and after the arrival of a new group of animals. But such practices are not widespread in China, he regrets.
“I was in Wuhan in September. I’ve been in that market,” he says of the market where the first human was infected. “You find live fish, dead fish, and other animals… There are no hygiene standards. They simply rinse with a garden hose. There’s no point in that. You’re just creating a soup of bacteria.”
Virologist and avian influenza expert Robert Webster confirms. He believes it is time to close wet markets around the world, where animals and humans often rub shoulders in cramped and unsanitary conditions, and where new viruses have already been transmitted by animals to humans. “One of the lessons we learn from this incident — and SARS — is that it is time to close the live animal markets in Asia. And in the United States, where we also have them. China is rich enough to close them completely,” he says.
Joe Drake n’est pas si catégorique : “c’est leur culture. C’est comme ça qu’ils sont habitués à faire leurs achats”. Mais cette culture pourrait être en train de changer. Le distributeur chinois de Joe Drake, qui ne travaillait jusqu’à présent qu’avec des hôpitaux et des agences gouvernementales chinoises, reçoit de plus en plus d’appels d’usines agroalimentaires, intéressées par son désinfectant. “La Chine veut faire du commerce avec le reste du monde, y compris avec ses produits alimentaires, donc elle sait qu’elle doit le faire”, explique-t-il.
Spraying cities with bleach is not a very effective solution to control coronavirus
Seeing queues of disinfection trucks on the streets or wearing a mask as a purely preventative (even if you are not sick and not in contact with sick people) helps to give a false sense of security during an epidemic. Health experts point out that these ineffective measures can also divert money, supplies and people’s attention from places where they are most needed.
“In truth, coronaviruses have a very low ability to survive on the surface,” Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist in infection prevention, told Business Insider US. “It’s an organism that spreads through respiratory droplets. So by coughing, sneezing. Your hands can be contaminated, then you touch your eyes, your mouth.” She believes that the widespread use of disinfectants such as bleach — which is used in truck sprayers in at least one Chinese city, Yichang — is “a little exaggerated”.”
“I would rather see efforts focus on disinfecting emergency rooms and sensitive areas in hospitals and schools, rather than seeing bleach sprayed on the streets,” she laments. “Honestly, think about how often your hands or mouth come into contact with a street…” Bleach is not just for the streets. Patients and doctors are also disinfected upon discharge from hospital.
Health experts say that the most basic and common hygiene practices — washing hands frequently with soap and water, covering coughs and sneezes, staying at a safe distance (1.80 m) from sick people and staying at home when you are sick — remain the most effective means of preventing such a virus from spreading further. Coronaviruses only survive for a few hours on surfaces. That’s why imported goods aren’t going to contaminate you. But a dirty phone, keyboard or doorknob could. “The risk of spread through inanimate objects or contaminated surfaces is low,” explains Saskia Popescu. “It’s not bad, but it’s weak.”