How to make sure your virus-riddled smartphone is not going to kill you

Published by Ewan Spence at 15:27 UTC, October 21st 2010

Here’s the basic idea being spouted – people handle phones, they hand them to other people, and because they touch them, you can transfer a virus from the glass to your fingers, and from there into your eyes, mouth, nose, and the other virus vectors into your body. "A scientist has just proved this happens". The rise of the smartphone means that any virus living on your phone will get… everywhere!!!

Oh dear.

I get the feeling that many of these writers have never watched a group of toddlers pass around the Fisher Price Pull-Along Plane, tasting every surface and passenger, proving both that the toy was waterproof and that toddlers (like most humans) can be rather resilient to virii that live on the surfaces of pretty much everything in the world.

Have you stopped to think how much bacteria and virii live in your body? That you need to make you work? They’re pretty much everywhere and vital to life. So is there anything to worry about? Probably not.

Fisher PriceNow that's what I call a virus carrier!

Is this more a typical science “story” that takes one conclusion, whips up an interest with an awkward extrapolation to a real life situation, carries little justification and almost no accurate quotes to prove the case? Yes. It won’t be the first, and it won’t be the last – and they all follow a similar pattern (see this Guardian article on How to Write A Science Story for a Newspaper).

I think Timothy Julian (the Stanford University student who co-authored the paper) might like to study the progression of this story from the initial source (let’s call it website zero) and how it propagated through the blogs and news sites around the web. I suspect, ironically, the pattern would mirror that of a viral infection.

It appears that the flare-up in stories has started here at the Sacramento Bee, which makes the jump from the paper (touching generic surfaces can pass on a virus) to the modern day touch-screen smartphones. Julian has answered the point in the article. "If you put virus on a surface, like an iPhone, about 30 percent of it will get on your fingertips," he is quoted as saying, before qualifying that with " day-to-day life, I don't know how much risk a phone will really have for spreading influenza."

But his final word "I think smartphones have so much personal information in them, my worry is more about security rather than about infectious disease” hasn’t calmed the situation, with hundreds of websites jumping on the idea of a killer virus-carrying smartphone.

Many web sites have lifted from the Sacramento Bee, noted that the research has been "published online", and then, rather than link to the scientific paper, simply trusted the Bee's coverage. And then added their own spin to the story. And then those spun stories get linked to and the real message continues to be diluted.

If you’d like to view the paper, then you’ve got a search on your hands to get through all these blog results cluttering up Google. Steve and I have dusted down our academic hats and we reckon it’s this one: “Virus Transfer Between Fingerpads and Formites” (Journal of Applied Microbiology, 26 July 2010, Julian, Leckie and Boehm). The full paper is behind a paywall, but the abstract conclusion illustrates what’s really going on:

Viruses are readily transferred between skin and surfaces on contact. The fraction of virus transferred is dependent on multiple factors including virus species, recently washing hands, and direction of transfer likely because of surface physicochemical interactions.

No mention of smartphones, no death and horror coming from the touchscreen, just a simple rule that is drilled into every child at a nursery, every school-kid doing basic hygiene, and the request made to visitors on a Hospital Ward...

Wash your hands.


-- Ewan Spence, Oct 2010.

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