Can Coronavirus Survive in Your Refrigerator? Here's What a Renowned Scientist Told Us

We asked one of the world's top virologists what happens when coronavirus makes it into a fridge on the surface of a food container.

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Before you put the latest round of groceries in your refrigerator, take a few minutes to disinfect all items.

That's the advice we heard from Dr. Warner Greene, a leading virologist and research scientist with the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco.

"Coronaviruses are, by their nature, 'sticky' viruses," Dr. Greene said. "They can survive for a surprising period of time on surfaces, although they are rapidly dying on these surfaces."

Research is still ongoing for the current strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19. A 2010 study by the American Society for Microbiology investigated the effects of temperature and humidity on the SARS coronavirus, which is closely related to the COVID-19 virus (officially named SARS-CoV-2). Scientists found that coronavirus thrived in low humidity and temperatures below 40° F -- the same environment found inside a typical refrigerator.

Dr. Greene, who is familiar with the 2010 study but was not involved with it, says that's all the reason he needs to recommend everyone disinfect grocery items before they go in the fridge or freezer.

"The point is, you would never put anything into your refrigerator without first decontaminating it," he said. “For foodstuffs and boxes and things like that, my wife and I do this together: take a towel, soak it in Lysol, and then really go over the hard surface of the cardboard; of the food product,” he said.

Dr. Greene says you can follow these steps every time you bring home groceries:

  • Prepare a bowl or bucket of disinfectant, preferably with an alcohol base. "There are two things that can dissolve the membrane of the cornavirus. You can use alcohol to do that, or soap and water."
  • If you don't have access to a kitchen disinfectant -- they're hard to come by right now -- Dr. Greene says you can also create your own with diluted household bleach. He recommends combining 1/3 cup of bleach with a gallon of water. Otherwise, add some soap to warm water.
  • Next, soak a towel in the cleaning solution and wring it out.
  • Use the damp towel to thoroughly wipe down the surfaces of every food container -- bags, boxes, bottles, cans. Make sure you're doing so on a clean surface, like a disinfected countertop or table.
  • Don't stop at the refrigerator! Decontaminate food containers before they go in the pantry or cabinets, too.
  • Clean produce the same way you always do. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a helpful guide.
  • Wash your hands when your're done -- every time!
  • Wash your reusable grocery bags. Make sure they're machine-washable before you add them to the laundry.

What about the freezer? Dr. Greene says it's unclear whether coronavirus could survive at sub-zero temperatures, but it's a good idea to disinfect frozen items anyway.

"In the freezer, it's a little more problematic that the coronavirus could survive a freeze-thaw," he said.

Dr. Greene and his team have spent years researching HIV, in search of a vaccine and a cure. Now, he says his team has pivoted to the COVID-19 virus.

"We're very hard at work using a particular assay [research procedure] drugs, to see if any of them can block the earliest steps in the viral life cycle," he said. "We're hard at work trying to identify whether there could be an improved drug that could be rapidly brought into play, as a new antiviral for this particular coronavirus."

Dr. Greene and other scientists at the Gladstone Institutes are largely funded by grants, and they are seeking donations to aid in COVID-19 coronavirus research. You can learn more at the Gladstone website.

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