Could Covid-19 coronavirus be spread through pipes?

An outbreak of Covid-19 coronavirus in Hong Kong has led to fears that the virus may be able to spread through pipes
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Two residents living 10 floors apart in a high-rise tower in Hong Kong have both been diagnosed with Covid-19 coronavirus, leading to fears that the disease could be spread through pipes.

A 75-year-old male resident of Hong Mei House was first infected with the disease. Less than two weeks later, a 62-year-old woman was diagnosed with the virus – despite the fact that neither her nor the man in question had come into face-to-face contact with each other, as is normally required for the disease to be passed on.

This has set alarm bells ringing in Hong Kong about the possible role that pipes could play in the transmission of Covid-19 coronavirus. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, there were more than 42 deaths attributed to SARS spreading through pipes at the Amoy Gardens housing estate.

On that occasion, the issue was caused by U-bends in toilets on the estate being emptied of water. Water is kept in U bends primarily to prevent sewer gasses and odours from entering properties through the toilet pipework system, as well as for taking away contaminated wastewater.

Without the layer of water in the U-bend, the air-bound SARS virus was able rise through pipes and toilets, into bathrooms and spread throughout the estate, resulting in such a serious outbreak.



Officials in Hong Kong have played down a repeat of that. For a start, unlike at Amoy Gardens, the pipework at Hong Mei House has not been found to be damaged or lacking in water.

Two-thirds of those infected with SARS during the Amoy Gardens outbreak reported having diarrhoea, adding to the problems in an already faulty pipe system.

And that’s before you take into account that Covid-19 is not thought to be an airborne virus, which was the major reason as to how SARS spread so quickly.

Given that coronavirus is such a new disease, research is continuing into how it is actually passed on with scientists currently theorising that it is though human contact, such as touching hands or via infected droplets from sneezing or coughing.

The outbreak at Hong Mei House appears to have been caused by a moderated toilet vent pipe that had been sealed up. As a result, it could have allowed coronavirus to spread by preventing infected faecal particles from escaping, instead forcing the contamination into the ventilation system.

The pipe in question was said to have been in room 307 of the high-rise complex – believed to be that of the second person to be infected.

If infected faecal material flowed from the first person’s apartment down to room 307 and was then able to enter the bathroom there because of the moderations made to the pipe, then the occupant of 307 would have found themselves at risk of contracting Covid-19.

Because of the way that Hong Mei House’s toilet discharge pipes are connected, health authorities evacuated every single occupant of rooms ending in 07 across the entire 30 floors as a precaution.

Only three more people have so far been diagnosed with coronavirus linked to this particular outbreak – and none of those cases is due to the disease travelling through pipes.

The woman’s son, his wife and her father are all undergoing treatment for the disease. The woman, son and wife all share a flat in Hong Mei House and the father has been in close contact with those infected.

With the investigation into the outbreak at Hong Mei House continuing, authorities in Hong Kong have told residents to maintain their drainage pipes to ensure that their systems are in good working order and that they contain water. It is particularly important that ventilation pipes are not sealed or blocked.

There’s nothing to suggest yet that Covid-19 can spread through pipes that haven’t been modified or sealed. It is also easy to repair damaged pipes that could play a role in the spread of the disease.

At this moment in time, the outbreak at Hong Mei House appears to be an isolated incident – although as with everything surrounding Covid-19 coronavirus at this moment in time, scientists are still learning and refining their theories about how the disease spreads.

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