Scientists have discovered the new coronavirus is "remarkably resilient" in the air and can remain infectious for more than 12 hours.
Researchers from the United States compared the virus with Sars and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome to see how long it stays infectious when suspended in the air for up to 16 hours.
They found spread through the air might be a more important exposure transmission pathway than previously thought.
In their study, particles of the virus could still infect cells in a dish and looked intact under a microscope after 16 hours.
"That's very unusual, we'd expect them to be ripped apart in the air by then," infectious disease aerobiologist Professor Chad Roy, one of the co-authors of the study, told the Sydney Morning Herald.
"We scientists don't use this kind of bold language lightly so health authorities need to take note."
Despite not being peer-reviewed, Roy said they were confident with their results because they had been replicated across four different labs.
The research was released early as the fight against coronavirus across the world continues.
"We're all running under a fire drill, there's still so much we don't know about this virus and it's all so urgent," Roy told SMH.
"Of course we need more research, environmental conditions [outside the lab] will vary … and we haven't looked at personal susceptibility [or] dose … but in science when you see a warning light blinking on like this, you need to pay attention."
In the real world, there is a multitude of confounding factors such as heat and humidity.
The virus is thought to mostly spread through close contact in large droplets from coughing or sneezing. This essentially means that although research shows the pathogen is airborne, you can't get it from passing someone in the street.
Droplet infections generally only infect one or two extra people, unlike airborne diseases like measles that can spread to 10 people.
The measles virus is unusually small. It's so tiny, it can float about where someone has sneezed for up to two hours.
Epidemiologist Michael LeVasseur last month said if coronavirus could easily spread through the air we would be seeing much greater levels of transmission.
"And we would be seeing a different pattern in who's getting infected," he told medical news service STAT.
"With droplet spread, it's mostly to close contacts. But if a virus easily exists as an aerosol, you could get it from people you share an elevator with.
"Evidence [is] that the virus is predominantly spread through droplets and not as an aerosol."