A few months ago, most of us had never heard about coronaviruses but since March we have been bombarded with information (and dis-information); here is my summation of it.
Coronaviruses are a group of related RNA viruses that cause diseases in mammals and birds. In humans, these viruses cause respiratory tract infections that can range from mild to lethal. Mild illnesses include some cases of the common cold or winter flu while more lethal varieties have caused SARS (2003), MERS (2010), and COVID-19 – Coronavirus disease 2019.
The coronavirus gets its name from the crown-like spikes on its surface (corona is the Latin name for crown); including the newly identified form of the virus, COVID-19, there are seven coronavirus so far known to infect humans.
So far we know that COVID-19 is a virus and not a living organism. It’s a microscopic molecule of protein (RNA) surrounded by a protective lipid membrane (fat membrane) which, when absorbed by the membranes of the eyes, nose or mouth, undergoes genetic change; the virus begins to mutate and multiply very fast.
Antibacterials kill living organisms like bacteria but they don’t kill viruses because a virus is not a living organism. For this reason antibiotics are ineffective in treating virus infections. The solution is to break their propagation and multiplication chain via one or other of the social distancing /self-isolation strategies now commonplace.
The COVID-19 virus spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharges from the nose; when an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which contain the virus. That’s why it is so important to practice social distancing; if you are too close, you can breath in the droplets, including the Covid-19 virus if the person has the infection.
As a simple protein molecule, Covid-19’s survival chances outside of a living organism are limited – it simply disintegrates after a while. The time it take to disintegrate is dependent on the temperature, dampness and type of the material that it is in contact with. All-in-all, the virus preserves best in cold, damp and dark environments.
Heat changes the state of the external fat layer of the virus. This means that when the temperature increases, they breakdown faster, particularly when exposed to the environment outside the human body. This breakdown reduces the infectiousness of the virus by weakening its contagiousness. Scientific studies have confirmed this, suggesting that a temperature of 56C or 133F is sufficient to destroy the virus and finding that by 30C it has lost 50% of its infectivity and by 33C it has lost as much as 80% of its infectivity. Taking cognizance of this information it would seem advisable to use water temperature above 30C to clean our hands and above that (60C) to wash clothes that have been contaminated with the virus.
Once a virus lands on an inert surfaces it starts to disintegrate, the rate of decay depending on the material it is on, ambient temperature and light. Apparently, it can survive for around 3-4 hours on cloth, 4 hours on wood, 24 hours on cardboard, 42 hours on metal and 72 hours on plastic. These times are approximations as different studies have started from different points and reached different conclusions; the latest WHO posts are non-committal.
In any event, to cleanse and disinfect hands and external surfaces from the virus, a variety of products containing varying proportions or mixtures of water, alcohol, chlorine (bleach), hydrogen peroxide, soap and detergents are commonly employed; personal choice as well as product availability are clearly of some significance here.
Hydrogen peroxide will rapidly dissolve the protein of the virus but it can equally well damage your skin if applied directly and insufficiently diluted with water; a concentration of 2 -3% is recommended.
Solutions containing 60-65% medical alcohol dissolve fat quickly, breaching the protective fact layer of the virus and effectively destroying it.
An inexpensive disinfectant to cleanse external surfaces (but not skin) can be made by mixing 8-10ml of bleach to 500ml of water in a spray bottle for ready use.
Do not shake anything you think has been contaminated with the virus, because you risk shaking micro-particles free to float into the air, getting into your mouth, nose or eyes.
The virus is really quite fragile, the only thing that protects it is a very thin fatty layer. For that reason, washing your hands with soap frequently is the simplest and best cleanser. It is not necessary to use an antibacterial soap, any soap is good to go for this job. Experts recommend washing your hands thoroughly front and back and between the fingers for 20 seconds – so as to ensure that the protective layer of fat coating the virus is dissolved; thereafter the molecule of protein disperse and the virus disintegrates.
Most important is to respect social distancing and not to touch your face. It’s fine if you touch something that is contaminated as the virus cannot pass through your skin but is imperative that you don’t touch your face and that you wash or disinfect your hands as soon as you are able after possible contamination.
© 2020 Maria Serrano