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Associated PressA local villager sands guard behind a makeshift barricade to keep visitors from entering the village on the outskirts of Beijing, Saturday, May 3, 2003.

The Washington Post

The SARS virus can survive on common surfaces at room temperature for hours or even days, which could explain how people can catch the deadly lung infection without face-to-face contact with a sick person, scientists have found.

New laboratory studies, being released today, have produced the first scientific data on how long the SARS virus can live in various places and conditions, demonstrating for the first time that the microbe can linger outside an infected person's body.

One study showed the virus survived for at least 24 hours on a plastic surface at room temperature, which suggests it might be possible to become infected from touching a tabletop, doorknob or other object. Another found the microbe remained viable for as long as four days in human waste, a crucial finding that could clarify how the virus can spread through apartment buildings, hospitals and other facilities.

German scientists found a common detergent failed to kill the virus, indicating that some efforts to sterilize contaminated areas may be ineffective. An experiment conducted in Japan concluded that the virus could live for extended periods in the cold, suggesting it could survive the winter.

The long-awaited findings should be crucial for containing the epidemic, and they could solve one of the most important mysteries about the new disease: how the virus spreads without direct exposure to infected individuals.

"It's the first time we have hard data on the survival of the virus. Before, we were just speculating," Klaus Stohr, the World Health Organization's top SARS scientist, said Saturday. "There has been a lot of speculation that the touching of objects could be involved. This shows that transmission by contaminated hands or contaminated objects in the environment can play a role."

In addition, the findings will help researchers develop better tests for the virus and possible treatments. Now that they know what temperatures kill the virus, researchers can purify serum from sick people to use in calibrating tests and possibly to give other patients as a therapy. Serum contains antibodies that are measured by tests. In addition, the antibodies could work as a treatment if they can neutralize the virus.

The results were produced by laboratories in Hong Kong, Japan, Germany and Beijing that are part of a scientific network organized by WHO to study the previously unknown virus. The findings were compiled and analyzed over the past few days and were to be posted on WHO's Web site today so public health workers around the world can begin using them to keep the virus from spreading, said Stohr, who described the findings in a telephone interview.

Stohr stressed that a key unknown is how much virus is necessary for someone to become infected. So even though the virus can survive in the environment, it remains unknown whether it can survive in sufficient quantities to be dangerous, he said.

Stohr also emphasized that by far, the primary mode of transmission was through droplets that spray out when an infected person sneezes or coughs.

But researchers had become increasingly suspicious that there were alternative transmission routes because of incidents in which people became infected without close personal contact with a sick person.

The most disturbing case involved a 33-story apartment tower in the Amoy Gardens complex in Hong Kong. Hundreds of people living in the building were infected, forcing authorities to evacuate the residents to quarantine camps.

An intensive investigation concluded that the outbreak may have been caused by a man who caught SARS, developed diarrhea and used his brother's bathroom in the building. Investigators found a small crack in a sewage pipe in the building and speculated that the virus spread through the building in droplets that became airborne from the leak.

"There has been a lot of speculation about how the Amoy Gardens got infected. No one knew whether the hypothesis would hold. This would support the theory that … sewage coming out from that crack could have contaminated the air," Stohr said.

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