By Emma Rumney

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) – Commuters squinted as they streamed into a bus station in the South African township of Soweto on a bright Thursday, but not because of the glare – they were being sprayed with a solution meant to fight the coronavirus.

Filing one by one through a metal tunnel, they were hit with a cold mist containing a disinfectant supposed to kill the pathogen. Some recoiled as the fog hit their faces, while others spun around to get an even coating.

Scientists have cast doubt on the effectiveness of mass disinfecting against the pandemic. Some commuters, though, said it gave them peace of mind amid the bustle of the station.

“I’m happy as long as they are trying to sanitise it, it shows … they are doing something,” said Bright Shabani, a 34-year-old merchandiser, who described going to work every day in the rush hour as traumatic.

South Africa has recorded just over 12,000 cases of the virus, with 219 deaths. Thursday was the first day the booth was operating at the bus station as a pilot project, but similar installations are in use at other locations including a train station and a mine.

Keen to show they are doing all they can to protect people, governments around the world have rolled out disinfectant tunnels, sprayed pavements with bleach and used drones to spray public spaces.

But scientists say that while disinfectants can kill the coronavirus on surfaces, the sprays tend to degrade quickly, so these efforts are far less important than personal hygiene and social distancing.

“Any individual who walks through a tunnel who is infectious, remains infectious on the other side of the tunnel,” Kerrin Begg and Nandi Siegfried, of South Africa’s College of Public Health Medicine, said in a written response to questions.

They added that infected individuals will immediately begin to spread the virus again unless they follow guidance on hygiene and distancing.

Vuyelwa Toni Penxa, managing director of Real African Works Industries, which makes the booths, said the fog they use is plant-based and tests have shown it is 99.9% effective against bacteria and other pathogens, including a virus similar to the novel coronavirus.

The company is awaiting tests to prove its effectiveness on this strain, so while they can’t yet be 100% certain, she was confident the tunnels could make a difference.

“We are hoping to reduce the number of people that are infected,” she said, adding however: “No one solution can be prescribed to combat COVID-19.”

(This story corrects to remove reference to University of Cape Town in eighth paragraph)

(Reporting by Emma Rumney; Editing by Tim Cocks and Giles Elgood)