"Vomiting Larry," a robot built by British scientists, is being used to help them understand how norovirus spreads. The "humanoid vomiting system" is helping researchers from the Health and Safety Laboratory in Derbyshire track exactly how the nasty winter bug infected over a million in the U.K. and 21 million in the U.S. per year.
Vomiting Larry has shown scientists how his projectile puke, sometimes reaching nearly 10 feet, can get people sick even hours, days, weeks, or even months later, depending on the surface on which it lands. Furthermore, it takes such a small amount to make a person sick that norovirus quickly spreads.
"It takes fewer than 20 virus particles to infect someone," Ian Goodfellow, a professor of virology at the department of pathology at Britain's University of Cambridge, told Reuters. "So each droplet of vomit or gram of feces from an infected person can contain enough virus to infect more than 100,000 people."
To help study exactly how aerosolized vomit— that's particles of puke invisible floating in the air, sometimes invisible to the naked eye—travels, scientists equipped Vomiting Larry with a "vomitus substitute" that's fluorescent and highly visible.
Norovirus, named for the Norwalk, Ohio town in which the first recorded outbreak was seen in 1968, can cause vomiting, diarrhea, fevers, headaches, and stomach cramps. It is also extremely resilient, being able to survive on hard surfaces for 12 hours, 12 days on fabrics, and months or even years in water.
Furthermore, norovirus survives cleanings by many household disinfectants, so bleach is often necessary to fully disinfect an area where a sick person has vomited. Worse is that people can be repeatedly infected year after year, because the virus quickly mutates over time.
"There are many strains, and the virus changes very rapidly— it undergoes something virologists call genetic drift," John Harris, virus expert from the British Health Protection Agency, told Reuters. "When it makes copies of itself, it makes mistakes in those copies— so each time you encounter the virus you may be encountering a slightly different one."
Scientists say the best way to avoid norovirus— there is currently no vaccine or antibiotics to fight the infection— is to wash the hands with soap and warm water often for 15 seconds.