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Pharmacy-first year. ******** Hong. Group A.

Survival of viruses in the environment


Introduction Viruses are a large group of microorganisms which are classified as not living. Viruses have no metabolic capabilities of their own and rely on host cells for energy, metabolic intermediates, and protein synthesis. Viruses do have their own genetic material, but they cannot replicate on their own. Like cells and other living matter many scientists have been interested in how environmental factors may influence virus ab ility to survive. There have been many studies into the topic however, as methodologies differ therefore conclusions may be hard to compare (Tang 2009). It is believed by many that viruses are transmitted via droplets and that this is the most frequent way of transmission of viruses. If viruses are affected by environmental factors could it mean that their survival in the environment differs from season to season? Hence, could this mean that humans are more susceptible to become infected by viruses in a particular season? It is recognised by many members of the public that winter is the season of colds and flu. The virus which causes the flu is influenza. The flu season for the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere are both in winter. This indicates that there might be a correlation between the climate of winter and the survival of influenza. Could the climate during the winter be the reason as to why we are more likely to be ill in winter? The effect of temperature on viruses The effect of temperature on viruses has been studied in great detail and in general it is agreed that as temperature rises the survival rate of viruses decreases. Temperature is one of the most important factors which effect virus survival as it affects their genome and proteins (Tang. 2009). It was found by Harper (1961) that the virus influenzas optimum temperature to survive was at a low temperature, with 61% viability of the virus after 23 hours at 7-8C. Whereas when the temperature was increased to 20.5-24C the percentage dropped significantly and decreased further as the temperature was increased to 32C. Harpers samples were collected in 0.008M McIlaines buffer with a pH of 7.2 and diluted for assessment in the standard medium of Fazekas de St Groth & White (1958). There is a general trend (figure 1) that as temperature decreases the survival of viruses are higher. The reasons why a low temperature may be favoured by viruses are that in high temperatures the viral proteins and the genome may be damaged.
100 80

% viability

60 40 20

7.00 7 C 20.5C 20.5 32C 32

0
0 1/12 1/2 1 4 6 23

Time (hours)
Figure 1. Data from Harper, G,J., 1961. Airborne micro-organisms: survival tests with four viruses. 1

Pharmacy-first year. ******** Hong. Group A.

The effect of humidity on viruses Humidity is the quantity of water vapour in the air, and the level of it can be measured in various ways. One way to do so is the relative humidity (RH), which expresses the amount of water vapour in the air at a specific temperature at any time as a percentage. The RH is relative to the maximum amount of water that can be held by the air at the specific temperature. In high temperatures air can hold a great deal of water vapour whereas in low temperature it can hold very little vapour. In 2008 Shaman and Kohn describe the relationship of the temperature and the RH as exponential. This means that when the RH is higher the air can hold much more water than air at a lower temperature. A graph of the rate would be a curve getting steeper which represents lower temperature holding very little water vapour and higher temperature holding a lot more water vapour. In general, viruses which have a lipid envelope survive longer at a lower RH (figure2), such as influenza (Schaffer et al 1976). However non-lipid enveloped viruses survives longer at higher RHs such as the rhinovirus (Karim et al 1985). Studies suggest that therefore when the humidity is low (15-40%) influenza survives longer, whereas the survival of the virus will be very low at a higher RH (50-90%). (Harper 1961) The survival of the lipid enveloped viruses may be longer at a lower RH as the envelope makes the virus hydrophobic. As lipids are insoluble in water, this may be the reason to why their viability is low in high RH.

Figure 2 Influenza virus viability at 20.5 to 24C and five RH levels. Source: Harper 1961

Pharmacy-first year. ******** Hong. Group A.

Why are colds more common in winter? Many studies have investigated reasons for a peak flu season and there are many possible reasons why. One of which could be that during winter the environment is optimal for the influenza virus. However many people argue that there is more to the reason for the peak flu season. Many agree that during winter people are in a much closer proximity compared to summer, therefore people are more likely to be exposed to droplets expelled by coughs and sneezes. For example in winter, people spend more time indoors in the warmth. This means you are more likely to inhale small particles from the evaporation of droplets by an infected person. Furthermore during winter people are less likely to walk, therefore they are more likely to be commuting. This is another example of another place where people are more likely to be exposed to direct or indirect droplet of sneezes and coughs which would lead to an infection caused by the influenza. Conclusion In summary studies suggest the optimum environment for virus to survive is low RH and low temperature. In winter the temperatures are low, and in most indoor places the RH is low enough for virus to survive long enough before invading a host. The RH of indoors are much lower in winter than compared to summer due to many places using heaters and radiators. There are other environmental factors which affect the survival rate of virus such as the amount of UV light. According to the Walker and Ko (2007) ultraviolet light is damaging to viruses as well as bacteria. Ultraviolet light is much stronger in summer in comparison to winter. This could explain why cases of flu are rare in the summer. The survival of viruses depends on a lot of environment factors such as temperatures, humidity and UV lights. However not all viruses have the same optimum environment for a large viability, for example the lipid enveloped viruses and non-lipid enveloped viruses have different optimum RH for survival in the air. In the case of lipid enveloped viruses such as the influenza virus, it survives best in a low temperature and a low RH.

References Harper, G.J., 1961. Airborne micro-organisms: survival tests with four viruses. Journal of Hygiene, 59, pp. 479-486 Karim, Y,G., Ijaz, M,K., Sattar, S,A., Johnson-Lussenburg, C,M., 1985. Effect of relative humidity on the airborne survival of rhinovirus-14. Canadian Journal of Microbiology, 31(11), pp.1058-1061 Tang, J.W., 2009. The effect of environmental parameters on the survival of airborne infectious agents. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 6, pp.S737S746.

Pharmacy-first year. ******** Hong. Group A.

Schaffer, F,L., Soergel, M,E., Straube, D,C., 1976. Survival of airborne influenza virus: Effects of propagating host, relative humidity, and composition of spray fluids. Archives of Virology, 51, pp.263273 Shaman, J., Kohn, M., 2008. Absolute humidity modulates influenza survival, transmission, and seasonality. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106, pp.32433248 Walker, C,M., Ko, G., 2007. Effect of ultraviolet germicidal irradiation on viral aerosols. Environmental science & technology. 41, pp.54605465