These frequently asked questions about the REALM project address information in the following categories:
A glossary of terms commonly used in the project is also available.
OCLC, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and Battelle have conducted reviews of the published scientific research, curated evidence-based resources, and conducted laboratory testing on SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) to provide information that can inform operational considerations for libraries, archives, and museums (LAMs).
Reviews of the scientific literature are designed to evaluate existing research about SARS-CoV-2 that may pertain to the materials, physical settings, and operations of LAMs. This areas of inquiry include how the virus is transmitted, how to mitigate its spread, and the effectiveness of various disinfection and cleaning methods. These reviews and research briefings can be found under Research section of this website.
Battelle laboratory tests investigated how long the virus remained viable and infectious on various materials that are commonly used or found in LAMs. The results from these tests can be found under the Research section of this website.
Illustrative examples from LAMs and information resources from subject matter experts and related fields have been collected and reviewed on an ongoing basis. These examples can be found in the Resources section of this website.
The three-phased project began in May 2020 and is scheduled through September 2022:
Phase 1: Preparing for Reopened Libraries (May – August 2020)
Collect, curate, and disseminate information and illustrative practices for mitigating transmission of the COVID-19 virus while handling circulating library collection items. Produce an initial set of research findings and related resources.
Phase 2: Additional Research to Support Operations of Libraries, Archives, and Museums (June – October 2020)
Conduct laboratory tests on the lifespan of the COVID-19 virus on a range of materials handled frequently in archives/special collections, libraries and museums. Produce scientific literature reviews, toolkit resources, and share illustrative examples from the field. Distribute information through project website, mailing list, webinars, and speaking engagements.
Phase 3: Monitor, Update, Communicate (October 2020 – June 2023)
Continue to monitor and review new COVID-19 research and community response, and update project resources and information as needed. Host and summarize discussions among archives, libraries, and museum practitioners about lessons learned during the pandemic that can help prepare institutions for future public health crises. Complete final project deliverables.
Each round of testing took approximately four weeks. The testing plan followed protocols to ensure the testing is accurate and well documented. While it is important not to take shortcuts when conducting scientific research, the project team has been committed to sharing authoritative results emerging from the lab work as quickly as possible. As soon as results have been cleared for publication, they were added to the project website and communicated broadly to the communities of archives, libraries, and museums and the member organizations that support those fields.
The test plan is available here. The methodology and results are explained in detail in the webinar, REopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums: Materials Testing and Resource Overview.
Above the limit of quantitation (LOQ) Battelle researchers are able to plug results into an equation and obtain quantifiable data (e.g., virus count). Below this LOQ threshold, the researchers simply note a positive or negative to indicate presence or nonpresence of virus. When the virus is no longer seen through the microscope on any of the samples, it is recorded as below the limit of detection (LOD). The infectious dose for humans remains unknown, so it is not yet possible to correlate the amount surviving on a surface as "safe" or "unsafe."
Battelle conducted the testing on previously circulated materials provided by Columbus Metropolitan Library; the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled, Library of Congress; and the National Archives and Records Administration. Battelle researchers did not clean the materials prior to adding virus to them via a synthetic form of saliva, but process controls ensure that the material were not already infected with SARS-CoV-2 or other pathogens.
This is a possibility that can occur with the type of lab tests that Battelle is conducting, which is a cell-based assay. For each material studied, five samples are inoculated with the virus and examined at each time point. At levels below LOQ (the limit of quantitation), the Battelle researchers simply record a positive or negative to indicate either presence or lack of presence of virus, not the actual number of virus particles. This is a qualitative assessment based on observation through a microscope: the researchers look at each of the five samples and record whether they see any virus; the resulting number is an average across those five samples. When the infectious virus load starts at a very high level (i.e., up to 100,000 particles), the difference at the low end of 1 or none can be somewhat variable.
The lab tests apply approximately 100,000 virulent virus particles, which for SARS-CoV-2, represents the highest achievable concentration using classical cell culture methods. Battelle researchers believe this amount simulates a realistic, or possibly worst-case, scenario (i.e., a highly infectious sneeze). The amount of virus needed to infect someone is not yet known; that amount could fall close to or below the LOQ (limit of quantitation) or well above it. Each variant of the virus adds additional differences in the viral load and infectability. Without that knowledge to draw conclusions from, the REALM Project is providing data that shows the rate of natural attenuation of the virus over time and how long before it becomes undetectable (< LOD).
All virus recovered and measured by this test are viable infectious materials. The lab testing uses a cell-based assay method, so virus particles are recovered and quantified by their ability to infect cells.
The test plan and tests were reviewed and discussed by the Scientific Working Group prior to their release. The completed study was published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology in early 2022.
Time points for each test were selected in advance, based on input from researchers and the Scientific Working Group, and to mimic real-world options, such as quarantining items for a few days or up to a week. Time points cannot be adjusted within a test once it is underway, but different time points can be selected for future tests based on findings of previous tests. For most of the materials tested, only a trace amount of virus was detected by the final time point examined.
The list of materials tested and the results can be found here. The selection of materials was determined by several factors, including the emerging results from previous rounds of tests and in the published scientific literature, the prevalence and usage of the materials, and their relative priority among plans for resuming operations and services in libraries, archives, and museums.
The “glossy pages” that were tested are the type of paper frequently found in a coffee table book or art book. This is a paper with a coated finish; therefore, it is less porous than an uncoated paper stock.
The findings from the Test 3 study of plastics may be able to inform decisions about other plastics-based items, such as computer monitors and keyboards. These items are more “disinfectant-friendly”, compared to paper-based items. Please consult the list of EPA-reviewed disinfectants for products that can aid in killing the virus: https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-n-disinfectants-use-against-sars-cov-2-covid-19.
For Tests 1 to 6, standard atmospheric conditions were used. Tests 7 and 8 retested a selection of materials at higher and lower temperatures.
In tests where the materials are described as being in a stacked configuration, after the samples were brushed with the synthetic saliva that contains the virus they were covered completely with other materials, to create full surface-to-surface contact. This simulates a contaminated sneeze trapped on a page inside a book, or a contaminated book cover stacked in the middle of a vertical pile or on a tightly packed shelf. In a stacked configuration, the virus is "sandwiched" between surfaces, which means it is less likely to be affected by ambient air or light.
The amount of virus shed in a sneeze is currently unknown. It is known that a sneeze can generate up to 200,000 particles. What we don’t know is how many SARS-CoV-2 virus particles might be contained within each droplet of a sneeze. The lab tests apply up to about 100,000 virulent virus particles, which represents the most that can be achieved via classical cell culture methods. We believe this amount simulates a realistic or possibly the worst-case scenario (i.e., a highly infectious sneeze).
The amount of virus needed to infect someone is not yet known; that amount could fall close to or below the LOQ (limit of quantitation) or well above it. Without that knowledge to draw conclusions from, the REALM project is providing data that shows the rate of natural attenuation of the virus over time and how long before it becomes undetectable (< LOD). Because the infectious dose in humans remains unknown, it is not yet possible to correlate the amount of virus surviving on a surface as being “safe” or “unsafe.” We could look at this in the context of other coronaviruses (SARS or MERS), which have an infectious dose around 100 to 1000 particles; or, COVID-19 could be similar to the flu, which is infectious at around 10 particles. We simply don't know yet.
SARS-CoV-2 is thought to mostly spread between people in close contact with one another and through respiratory droplets passed from person to person. Published research to date suggests that droplets expelled during actions like coughing, sneezing, speaking, and breathing may spread the virus through direct contact with other people or indirectly through contact with surfaces or dispersal into the air. There is a lot of excellent guidance for how to mitigate spread of COVID-19 through the air and direct contact with infected people, such as wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands, and having good ventilation.
More recent research is focused on aerosols – microscopic particles expelled in a sneeze/cough that can float in the air longer and farther than droplets. Aerosols may contribute to transmission more than droplets; however, there remain open questions about this form of transmission.
There is scientific evidence to suggest that spread via fomites (infected objects) is possible, from studies of samples of high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs, bathroom floors, toilets that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 RNA. However, a growing consensus in the scientific community is that fomite transmission (touching an infected surface and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes) is much less likely to happen than transmission through direct contact or via airborne droplets.
The scientific literature reviews produced by REALM have gathered research findings on how the virus is transmitted, how to mitigate its spread, and the effectiveness of disinfecting and cleaning methods.
This project is not giving recommendations or guidance. We are providing data that shows the rate of natural attenuation of the virus over time and how long before it becomes undetectable (< LOD) to support staff making decisions for their specific, local contexts.
Disinfecting surfaces with the appropriate cleaning agents (see CDC guidelines and systematic literature review, p. 23) would kill the virus immediately. However, it would not address the pages inside the book, which would be difficult to clean by wiping down. Quarantining is an option for items that are not practical or possible to disinfect individually.
Quarantining is an option for items that are not practical or possible to disinfect individually. One would have to wipe down every page of a book, for example. The amount of virus needed to infect someone is not yet known; that amount could fall close to or below the LOQ (limit of quantitation) or well above it. Without that knowledge to draw conclusions from, the REALM project is providing data that shows the rate of natural attenuation of the virus over time and how long before it becomes undetectable (< LOD).
The REALM research is focusing on remediation methods that are scalable for high volumes of materials. Putting thousands of books through a bug zapper or bedbug oven or passing a UV wand over the entire outside surface and interior pages of library materials are likely not scalable. A forthcoming literature review may surface studies of the effects of UV and temperature, if there are such studies that have been published in the literature.
Tests 1 to 6 studied materials held in standard office temperature and relative humidity. There is some scientific evidence that heat and humidity levels can affect the lifespan of SARS-CoV-2. Tests 7 and 8 studied materials at higher and lower temperatures, and the findings showed that the temperatures impacted how long the virus remained active on each surface.
The CDC has been informed of the results of these studies and IMLS will continue to communicate results to the CDC and invite their input. A team member of CDC's COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force was a guest presenter during our April 15, 2021, webinar.
The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) website has information about library activities in other countries.