SAN DIEGO (CNN) — Lysol, Clorox and a host of other household disinfectants widely tout their ability to kill 99.9% of bacteria and viruses. The claim is right there on the label.
Included in that 99.9%? Human coronavirus. It’s advertised on the back as a disease the product can disinfect from surfaces, along with two flu strains, E. coli and salmonella, among others.
That sparks some obvious questions, mainly: Would it work for the new coronavirus that’s spreading around the globe?
The answer, it turns out, is complicated.
The US Environmental Protection Agency has some guidance: The disinfectants are thought to be effective against the novel coronavirus. But until tests confirm this, its ability to kill the novel coronavirus has not been scientifically proven.
While the risk of getting novel coronavirus in the US remains low largely due to successful containment efforts, a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official warned Tuesday that the agency expected to see “community spread” of the virus in America.
“It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” said CDC National Prevention Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases Director Dr. Nancy Messonnier.
The novel coronavirus is, as the name suggests, new
The “human coronavirus” mention on the back of Lysol and Clorox wipes got people wondering — is the novel coronavirus all that new?
Without a doubt, yes. The novel coronavirus is a new virus. The current outbreak began around the beginning of 2020.
But human coronaviruses in general are not new.
They were first identified in the 1960s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and there are seven overall types.
The novel coronavirus is the most recently identified type — hence the word “novel” in its name. There are no vaccines or antiviral treatments that specifically target it.
Disinfectants may be effective against the novel coronavirus
Disinfectant products that have been proven effective in protecting against the other human coronaviruses are thought to be effective against the novel coronavirus, too, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Coronaviruses are enveloped viruses, Adalja said.
“We know that viruses that lack an envelope coating are much hardier in the environment,” he said.
And under the EPA’s guidance for emerging viral pathogens, since Lysol, and Clorox and other disinfectants have been proven to effectively kill other human coronaviruses, users can safely use the wipes and sprays to disinfect surfaces in areas where the novel coronavirus is suspected.
In a statement to CNN, the EPA said companies can apply for an “emerging pathogens claim” based on previously approved claims for harder-to-kill viruses. The agency reviews them and determines whether the company can safely make that claim.
Once approved, the company can make off-label claims in the event of outbreaks like the novel coronavirus.
Several Lysol products have been approved to make emerging viral pathogens claims for efficacy against the novel coronavirus, the EPA told CNN.
But “definitive scientific confirmation” that the wipes can defend against this specific virus can only come once it’s been tested against the strain, said Reckitt Benckiser, the company that owns Lysol and other hygiene brands, in a statement to CNN.
But the novel coronavirus is primarily spread between people
Here’s the thing, though: from what we know so far, it’s still early, the novel coronavirus is thought to spread primarily by people and their respiratory droplets — think coughs, sneezes, spit.
Person-to-person transmission is most common, the CDC said.
While it’s possible that people who touch surfaces or objects contaminated with the virus and then touch their mouths or eyes can also become infected, this may not be the main way the virus spreads, the CDC said. So disinfectant wipes can only go so far.
Plus, Lysol and Clorox are disinfectants designed for surfaces in homes, not for body parts. And even hand sanitizers aren’t foolproof protections against all germs.
Saskia Popescu, a senior infection prevention epidemiologist and consultant for Clorox, said Americans should not panic about contracting the novel coronavirus within the US.
But if they’re concerned, she recommends following the same practices they would if they were trying to avoid the common respiratory infections you can catch this time of year: Scrub hands clean with soap and water, wipe down shared work spaces with those disinfectant wipes and cover coughs and sneezes.
“All those basic things are effective, whether it’s a novel coronavirus or influenza,” she told CNN.