Is Your Cellphone a Trojan Horse for the Coronavirus?

Is Your Cellphone a Trojan Horse for the Coronavirus?

Bacteria and viruses may gain entry to your body through what is known as a “Trojan Horse.” The term grew from Greek mythology and was first recorded in Homer’s 8th century B.C. epic poem, The Iliad.1 The Trojan horse was a diversion used to sneak an army into the fortified city of Troy.

As the myth is told, the Trojan War was started by the Greek god Zeus to reduce the human population and reclaim Helen. Unable to achieve their goal in a straightforward attack, the Greeks left an enormous wooden horse outside the city as a “present” for the Trojans.

The horse was wheeled into the city. Late at night soldiers emerged from the belly of the horse and opened the city gates for the Greek army, who then soundly defeated the Trojans. Others have used similar methods throughout history. More recently, hackers use Trojan horse software to inflict damage on your computer or data.2

Is Your Cellphone a Trojan Horse?

Researchers believe their recent review of the literature “exposes the possible role of mobile phones as a ‘Trojan horse’ contributing to the transmission of microbial infections in epidemics and pandemics.”3

Mobile devices have become ubiquitous in society. People take them from the kitchen to the bedroom and bathroom. They are a potential breeding ground for bacteria, fungi and viruses, which the researchers wrote may “constitute a potential global public health risk for microbial transmission.”

Prompted by the current pandemic, they evaluated data from 56 articles from 24 countries. The study was led by Lotti Tajouri from Bond University in Australia. They noted that golden staph and E. coli were some of the more common pathogens found on cell phones. Tajouri called mobile devices “five-star hotels with premium heated spas, free buffet for microbes to thrive on.”4

Bacteria and viruses do well on cellphones since the devices are temperature controlled, frequently in people’s hands and next to their faces. As detailed in a press release,5 Tajouri said super users may handle their devices up to 5,000 times every day and cautioned individuals to think of their phone as a third hand:

“We know from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that 80 per cent of all infections are associated with our hands. You can wash your hands as many times as you like — and you should — but if you then touch a contaminated phone you are contaminating yourself all over again.”

He cautions people to clean their phones at least once a day. While more information is needed to determine the role contaminated cell phones may play in spreading contagious diseases, Tajouri points out they are with us everywhere and cleaning may make a difference in slowing the spread of viruses.

More Bacteria Than a Toilet Seat

Results from several studies have demonstrated that cell phones carried by health care workers are significantly contaminated with pathogens. In one of them involving 386 participants, some of the most predominant pathogens were Staphylococcus, Acinetobacter, E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae.6

The researchers found health care workers’ phones were 100% contaminated and could be a potential source of hospital-acquired infections. In a separate study comparing the cell phones of health care workers and non-health care workers, Iranian researchers found the predominant organism from those working in surgery was methicillin-resistant staph aureus (MRSA).7

Among those in the ICU, they found Acinetobacter was followed closely by MRSA. In non-health care workers’ mobile phones, 46% grew six different types of bacteria.

In a different study in 2016, however, S. epidermidis was the most predominant bacterium found on 84% of 100 cellphones examined, with S. aureus coming in at 54%.8 In hospitals, these infections have become so prevalent that operating room managers began looking at cellphones as possible contaminants causing infections in patients as early as 2007.9

In a later analysis10 looking directly at how infections occur in prosthetic joint replacements in the operating room, researchers said:

“These microorganisms can all be part of normal skin flora; hence, direct inoculation at the time of the operation as well as airborne contamination are the most likely causes of these infections.”

In other settings, researchers from Germany were interested in evaluating the touch screens on smartphones of individuals outside of health care.11 They randomly chose 60 students and found most identified bacteria were typically found on human skin, mouth, lungs and intestinal tract.

Five of the 10 identified bacteria were opportunistic pathogens. Other scientists found a significant association related to the number of bacteria, the age of the phone and the sharing of phones among individuals.12

The number of times you check your phone throughout the day, as well as how often you use them during activities when you would normally wash your hands, increases the risk these small devices are carrying more pathogenic bacteria and viruses than you might imagine.

Adding to this, they are frequently pressed up against your face and may be transferring bacteria to your hands, which you subsequently may use to scratch your eye or touch your mouth. A study in 2012 from the University of Arizona made headlines when they found cell phones may carry “10 times more bacteria than most toilet seats.”13

Clean Your Phone Without Damaging It

More specific to the current COVID-19 pandemic, a recent analysis of 22 studies evaluated the persistence of coronaviruses on inanimate surfaces. Published in the Journal of Hospital Infection, the data included SARS-CoV-1 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).14

Researchers found the viruses can persist on metal, glass or plastic for up to nine days. Cleaning surfaces with 62% to 71% ethanol or 0.5% hydrogen peroxide could disinfect within one minute. However, while alcohol and hydrogen peroxide kill pathogens, they are not friendly to your cell phone.15

The amount of damage will vary depending on the device. At the start of the pandemic, Apple changed their cleaning recommendation to 70% isopropyl alcohol to clean nonporous surfaces. Just remember, it’s important to keep moisture away from any of the openings on the device and avoid using bleach of any kind, as this can permanently damage your phone.

A second option is to purchase a screen protector for the touchpad and display. Glass screen protectors can be safely cleaned with isopropyl alcohol. They can be a challenge to install but have the additional benefit of helping to reduce scratches, cracks and other damage.

Phone sanitizers that use UVC light to break down pathogens may also be purchased to clean your phone.16 As Tajouri points out, no matter how clean your hands are, once you touch the screen of your phone you have contaminated your hands once again.

To reduce the number of pathogens that reach your face, nose and mouth, consider using a headset with a microphone to make phone calls. You should also clean your phone on a daily basis, wash your hands frequently for 20 seconds each time and keep your hands away from your face.

Use Linked to Increased Risk of Mitochondrial Damage

Cellphones, and in particular smartphones, have become so commonplace that apps are being developed to track and trace people with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and to send communications to people and issue quarantine guidelines.17 Most agree there is an issue with your data no longer being private.

While developers are trying to put mechanisms in place to address the question of privacy, apps are being downloaded by millions around the world. Fitness trackers are being designed to monitor your symptoms and artificial intelligence applications are underway to diagnose if you’re sick based on your voice or your cough.18

Politicians, scientists and vaccine-driven magnates are pushing to use mobile devices, to which many have become addicted, to reach their own end goals. Data show that even when you don’t have the phone in your hand, it may have a distracting influence on your performance of complex tasks.19,20

This may be the result of what programmers want to achieve in a process they call “brain hacking.”21 Essentially, programs are designed to capture your attention and draw you back for more interaction. Across several digital platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and games, this may have led to a growing number of users who are addicted to their smartphones.22

Your Phone Is Unlikely to Spread COVID-19

Although you may be able to culture different bacteria, viruses and fungi from the surface of your phone — thus emphasizing the importance of cleaning your cellphone — the CDC is clear:23 “COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly through close contact from person-to-person.” They recommend avoiding close contact with people since the virus likely is spread in respiratory droplets from people who are infected. These droplets are produced when a person sneezes, coughs or speaks.

While scientists have noted the virus appears to spread easily between people, it does not spread quickly in other ways, such as after touching an object such as a cellphone. The CDC recommends the best ways to prevent the illness are to avoid exposure by washing your hands and keeping approximately 6 feet between people.

Because scientists are still learning about the virus — even though the potential for spread from contaminated objects is low — the CDC also recommends routinely cleaning and disinfecting objects that are frequently touched and used.

Much of the concern surrounding getting infected from surfaces stem from a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine.24 Researchers were able to find the virus on some surfaces for up to three days. However, it wasn’t clear that people could get infected from the virus found on inanimate objects.

The CDC recommendations correlate with epidemiological data and surface testing. Leading German scientist Hendrik Streeck is an infectious disease specialist at the University Hospital in Bonnhas. He spoke with a reporter from the Daily Mail25 about his findings after sampling the home of one family with multiple SARS-CoV-2 infections.

He could not find “any live virus on any surface,” which raises more questions about the virus. He said the virus was not found on frequently used objects, such as doorknobs, or on animal fur. “We know it’s not a smear infection that is transmitted by touching objects, but that close dancing and exuberant celebrations have led to infections,” Streeck said.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Amesh Adalja from Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security spoke with a reporter from Yahoo Life, saying:26

“Based on the epidemiology, we know that the main way this virus is infecting people is from direct contact with other infected people. Contaminated surfaces play some role, but it’s likely much smaller. This is a respiratory virus, and respiratory viruses largely spread through breathing in infected respiratory droplets.”



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