Is it possible to get the coronavirus from a PC or smartphone made in China?
The thought may have crossed your mind given that China is both at the epicenter of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and the world’s leading manufacturer for many consumer goods. Factories in the country are routinely pumping out laptops, game consoles, and TVs, which are then shipped to the US.
But what would happen if an infected worker accidentally sneezed on the same imports during the production process? Does the hardware suddenly pose a risk to your health? PCMag spoke with four medical experts to get their thoughts on whether the new coronavirus strain, COVID-19, could ever spread from China on imported electronic goods, and all were pretty doubtful about the risk.
“Given everything we know, people should not be worried about it at all,” said John Swartzberg, clinical professor at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health.
An Unlikely Journey
The medical community is still trying to fully understand COVID-19, which has now spread to more than 60 countries. So key questions about how long it can survive outside the body, and under what conditions, are unknown.
Nevertheless, health experts have conducted research on other coronavirus strains, including SARS and MERS, which were responsible for two other epidemics in 2002-2003 and 2012, respectively. Last month, doctors in Germany wrote a paper examining 22 studies on the previous strains. They found that human-based coronaviruses survive on surfaces like metal, glass, and plastic from two hours to as much as five to nine days, depending on the material. However, nearly all the tests were carried out at room temperatures, or around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. (At 86 degrees, the MERS strain can only live up to 24 hours on steel or plastic.)
Long Beach Container Yard, California (Getty)
The nine-day figure may sound scary, but Swartzberg said human coronaviruses tend to die sooner rather than later in real-world conditions. In addition, a single sneeze may not contain enough coronavirus for it to survive on a smartphone after a 72-hour period.
“The virus itself requires cells to live in. When someone coughs or sneezes, the virus has a few cells to persist in on the inanimate object,” he said. “But those cells are going to die. There’s no home for the virus, and that’s the end for it.”
The likelihood COVID-19 lives a short life outside the human body is why medical experts are doubtful Chinese-made electronics could ever infect US consumers with the disease. It usually takes days or weeks for imports from China to reach the US, whether it be by plane or ship.
Charles Gerba, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Arizona, said concerns about imports getting contaminated with coronavirus actually came up in 2002-2003 with the SARS outbreak in China. “I was involved with [studying] that, but we found the virus didn’t survive long enough,” he said.
Exposure to ultraviolet rays and higher temperatures can also dramatically shorten the virus’s life, said George Rutherford, professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco. “If you had perfect laboratory conditions, I would give you that the virus could survive a few days,” he said. “But this is a short time. How long does it take a product to get from the factory in China to the US? It can take two weeks at least. So I think it’s well beyond the bound of possibility you would get infected.”
What Should You Really Be Concerned About?
Still, there are a lot of unknowns about COVID-19, creating fear among the public. Ryan Sinclair, a professor at Loma Linda University’s School of Public Health, told PCMag one of his own students recently got sick but was wary about wearing a mask because it was made in China.
The good news is that many shipped products come with moisture-absorbing “desiccant” packs as a way to keep electronic products dry and free of mold. The same packs can also help kill viruses, Sinclair said. Nevertheless, Sinclair believes the medical community should thoroughly investigate how long the new coronavirus strain can survive outside the body.
“I think it’s a valid question, and a valid concern,” Sinclair added. However, he also finds the theoretical threat about Chinese-made products carrying the disease a little ridiculous as well.
“There are so many other bacteria, and other respiratory viruses out there, and yet we don’t worry about those contaminating our electronics,” he said.
For now, the World Health Organization has rated the threat of infected workers contaminating commercial goods with COVID-19 as a “low” risk, a spokesperson told PCMag. “The risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low,” the spokesperson added.
To some extent, the problem also isn’t very hard to address; if you’re concerned about product contamination on a PC or smartphone, you can simply wipe it down. Just remember to wash your hands afterwards.
“I don’t think people should really worry about products from China getting contaminated. They should worry more about the delivery man who has coronavirus and is coughing all over the package,” Swartzberg said.
Gerba agrees. “I was looking at the UPS worker, and I was wondering, if he gets sick, well, maybe the cardboard will get contaminated. So maybe I should let the package sit outside for another day or two,” he said.
Indeed, the real threat will arrive in the event more coronavirus cases show up in the US, which as of Thursday had more than 150 confirmed cases. If infected strangers or co-workers end up sneezing around your PC or smartphone, the chances of COVID-19 surviving long enough to infect you is much higher. So it’s a good idea to regularly wipe down your electronics, which often attract all kinds of germs.
“People should wash their hands frequently with soap and water,” Swartzberg added. “If you don’t have soap and water, the next best thing is alcohol. And keep your hands away from your face.”
What Are Companies Doing?
(Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
We’ve reached out to all the major tech vendors about what precautions they’ve taken to prevent Chinese factory workers from sneezing or coughing on an assembled product. We haven’t heard many specifics, but Lenovo said: “All staff in our factories are required to wear masks and have their temperature checked on entry. And of course we’re following all the required quarantine rules for those returning from extended Lunar New Year holidays.”
PC maker Dell simply said assembled products do undergo “rigorous screening prior to shipment regardless of factory location.
“These protocols are designed to protect the health and safety of our own employees and suppliers and reduce the risk of contracting an illness of this nature from a Dell Technologies product or packaging,” the company added.
Other vendors such as Apple, HP, and manufacturing giant Foxconn did not respond for comment. Earlier this week, Foxconn—which makes Apple iPhones, among other electronics—says its factories in China will return to full operation at the end of this month.
Analysts who study China’s supply chain say the factories there have instituted strict controls to prevent infected workers from coming on site. “More than 90 percent of notebooks/monitors are made in China, and China’s government forbids employees suspected of virus infection from working on production lines,” said Jeff Lin, associate director at research firm Omdia. “If China’s assembly plants truly comply with Chinese government regulations, the risk from coronavirus on a notebook/monitor surface will be quite low.”
If an employee does become infected, China has required the manufacturer to stop work immediately, he added.
We also reached out to Amazon regarding what precautions the e-commerce company is taking at its delivery warehouses in the US. We’ve yet to hear back, though warehouse tours have reportedly been canceled.