The novel coronavirus can survive on some surfaces for days or in the air for several hours, according to a US-government funded study published on Tuesday.
This means that other factors like greater transmission between people with no symptoms might be why the current pandemic is far greater than the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003.
The new paper was published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and carried out by scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), University of California, Los Angeles and Princeton.
The new coronavirus was detectable for up to four hours on copper and two to three days on plastic and stainless steel, and for up to 24 hours on cardboard.
The team used a nebulizer to simulate a person coughing or sneezing, and found that the virus became an aerosol meaning its particles became suspended in the air making it detectable for almost three hours.
The study was first posted on a medical pre-print website last week before it was peer-reviewed, and attracted much attention, including some criticism from scientists who said that it may have overstated the airborne threat.
The virus is predominantly transmitted by respiratory droplets and in this form it is viable for only a few seconds after a person coughs or sneezes.
Critics questioned whether a nebulizer accurately mimicked a human cough or sneeze.
That said, there is other evidence to suggest it can become an aerosol, albeit in rare circumstances.
The team behind the NEJM study performed similar tests on the SARS virus, finding the two viruses behave similarly.
But their similar viability fails to explain why the novel coronavirus pandemic has infected close to 200,000 people and caused almost 8,000 deaths, while the SARS epidemic infected about 8,000 and killed nearly 800.
SARS-CoV-2 is the technical name for the new coronavirus.
The findings affirm guidance from public health professionals regarding social distancing, avoiding touching the face, covering your cough or sneeze and frequently disinfecting objects using cleaning sprays or wipes.