REALM: Frequently Asked Questions
“These frequently asked questions about the REALM project address information in the following categories (use the link to jump to the section):
About the project | Laboratory testing methodology | Materials | Transmission |
Quarantine | Disinfection and remediation | Other
New questions will be added to the list as needed. If your question is not answered here, please submit a question to the REALM project team through this form.
Last update: September 2, 2020.
About the project
What kind of research is the REALM project doing?
OCLC, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and Battelle are conducting research on how long the COVID-19 virus survives on materials common to libraries, archives, and museums. Research is talking two forms:
- Review of the scientific literature to evaluate existing research about SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) that may pertain to the materials and operations of libraries, archives, and museums
- Laboratory testing of materials that are touched or handled by visitors and/or staff in libraries, archives, and museums.
What is the timing for this project?
The three-phased project is underway and is scheduled to end in September 2021:
- Phase 1: Preparing for Reopened Libraries (May – August 2020)
In this phase, information and illustrative practices for handling physical collections and facilities are being collected, curated, and disseminated to support phased-in or full reopening of public library buildings and services. Research deliverables include the results of two rounds of testing (Tests 1 and 2) and a systematic literature review.
- Phase 2: Additional Research to Support Operations of Libraries, Archives, and Museums (June – October 2020)
This phase is studying an additional set of materials and workflows across libraries, archives/special collections, and museums. This will include materials and workflows that have factors that were not addressed in Phase 1 but are important to the function of archives, libraries, and/or museums. Three rounds of testing (Tests 3, 4, and 5) and a second systematic literature review will be conducted, and a new project website will also be launched in this phase.
- Phase 3: Monitor, Update, Communicate (October 2020 – September 2021)
The project will continue to monitor and review emerging research that may require updates and additions to the first two phases, and additional rounds of testing will be determined. As the rate of transmission for the virus changes over time and communities adjust to those changes, the policies and practices of libraries and museums may also warrant change.
How long does the testing take?
Each round of testing takes approximately four weeks. The testing plan follows protocols that ensure that the testing will be accurate and well documented. While it is important not to take short cuts when conducting scientific research, the project team is committed to sharing authoritative results emerging from the lab work as quickly as possible. As soon as results have been cleared for publication, they are added to the project website and communicated broadly to the communities of archives, libraries, and museums and the member organizations that support those fields.
How can I stay up to date on progress?
The latest project updates are available on the “Happening Now” page of the website. We encourage you to sign up to receive project updates by email and/or bookmark this page: oc.lc/realm-project as the primary source for sharing all program results and resources. You can also follow OCLC on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn for the latest project updates and join the conversation using #REALMproject.
Can I book a REALM project representative for a speaking engagement?
Representatives of the REALM project are available to share project information and findings through presentations to member associations and support organizations that serve libraries, archives, and museums. Please contact Mercy Procaccini (firstname.lastname@example.org) to discuss speaking engagement requests.
Laboratory testing methodology
Could you describe the testing methodology?
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.
Could you explain what LOQ and LOD mean? Which of these represents a “safe” amount?
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 receive a positive or negative to indicate presence or non-presence of virus. When the virus is no longer detectable, it is below the limit of detection (LOD). In this study, the LOQ is a virus count of 13.1 (or 1.31 when expressed as a log10). 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.”
How similar are the library materials used in the lab testing to typical library materials that have been handled by multiple patrons, possibly with unwashed hands, sneezing while holding the book, etc.?
Battelle is conducting the testing on previously circulated materials provided by Columbus Metro 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.
The graph of test results from Test 2 shows that the amount of virus detected on glossy magazine pages drops to almost nothing on day 3, and then increased slightly on day 4. What accounts for this increase on day 4?
This is a possibility that can occur with the type of lab tests that Battelle is conducting, which is a cell-based assay. 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. 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.
How much virus is applied to the materials being tested? How does this amount relate to the amount needed to infect someone? (see also, How much virus in a typical sneeze?)
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. 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).
Are all the virus particles that are detected on the materials in the lab testing merely present, or are they also viable and infectious?
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.
Are the REALM Project findings being peer reviewed?
Once the full study has concluded, it very well may be submitted for peer review. We would need to submit all of the tests that were conducted under the project, and we anticipate the testing will continue well into Phase 3 of the project. For now, the priority is publishing the results to help inform local decision making.
What materials are being tested?
Information on the materials tested thus far can be found in the published test results.
The selection of which materials to test in subsequent rounds will be determined by several factors, including the emerging results from previous rounds of tests, the prevalence and usage of the materials, and their relative priority among plans for resuming operations and services in libraries, archives, and museums. There are at least 125 materials that have been identified. Hard surface materials and textiles that are commonly used and found in libraries, archives, and museums are among the materials under consideration for future testing. The systematic literature review that was completed in May includes some preliminary studies of virus attenuation on metal, glass, wood surfaces, and cloth.
What kind of “glossy pages” were tested in Test 2?
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.
Will you test electronic devices, computer monitors and keyboards, laptops, and related equipment?
Electronic devices are on the list of potential items to test. 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.
Will you test the materials under different environmental or storage conditions?
The possibility of exploring variables in the storage and environmental conditions (e.g., heat, relative humidity) has been raised, but at this time we are looking at progressing through initial tests on materials at a standard room temperature and the same environmental conditions as previous tests.
How much virus does a typical sneeze produce?
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 achieve via classical cell culture methods. We believe this amount simulates a realistic or possibly the worst-case scenario (i.e., a highly infectious sneeze).
How much virus is needed to infect someone? Is the amount below the limit of detection safe?
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 around 10 particles. We simply don’t know yet.
There is a lot of data pointing to the airborne transmission of the virus. How much risk is there of surface (fomite-based) transmission? Staff and patrons are referencing articles that say surface transmission isn’t much of a concern.
The research question for the REALM project is about the virus lifespan on materials commonly used in libraries, archives, and museums. This question was posed by those who work daily with these materials, who felt that CDC guidelines did not offer information specific to their operations that involve handling a high volume of materials that move in and out of their facilities and are touched by many humans along the way. It may be that fomite transmission (touching an infected surface and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes) is much less likely than airborne transmission, but it has not been ruled out. It also may be a matter of scale—with staff handling thousands of books that have been brought to people’s homes and touched by many people—the risk may be higher. It is possible that more information about fomite transmission, as well as longevity of virus in the air, could surface with the second phase of the literature review that will be published in October.
What is the recommended length of quarantine of library materials? Given the persistence of virus on book covers and magazines, does the project recommend a quarantine of four days or longer? Should open stack browsing of books and magazines be closed?
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.
How can we avoid having to quarantine our library’s materials? If we wipe the covers of books with alcohol wipes, do we still need to quarantine the books when they are returned?
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.
Could quarantining materials for one day (getting COVID below LOQ) plus disinfecting them be just as effective at not spreading COVID?
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).
Could we use high-heat or UV devices such as bug zappers, bedbug ovens, or UV wands to kill the virus on library materials?
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.
Could different storage conditions (e.g., higher temperatures, different relative humidity levels, other enclosure materials) speed up the natural attenuation process? Will you test the materials under different conditions?
Some preliminary studies in the scientific literature indicate that higher heat and exposure to sunlight may increase the rate of attenuation, but these conditions have not been tested by the REALM project. The possibility of exploring variables in the storage and environmental conditions has been raised but at this time we are looking at progressing through initial tests on materials at a standard room temperature and the same environmental conditions as previous tests.
Is REALM Project research being shared with the CDC for their review?
The CDC has been informed of the results of these studies. They have not provided any additional guidance to date. IMLS will continue to communicate results to the CDC and invite their input.
What kinds of quarantine policies and remediation methods have libraries outside the US implemented?
The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) website has information about library activities in other countries.