NAAWAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews / 9 October) – It’s still a long wait. The vaccine that is hoped to stop the ravages of COVID-19 may reach our shores two or three years yet from now. The effort to ascertain the vaccine’s efficacy and reliability takes time. For instance, the mumps vaccine, developed by Merck in 1963, vaunted to be the fastest record-breaking vaccine that was ever developed, took four years to reach its users after its announced development.
Moreover, without investing or making advance payment in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, we’ll be at the tail end in the long queue of buyers.
Meanwhile, while waiting for the vaccine salvation, we need to engage the virus in battle. We have to rage against it.
But you can only triumph over an enemy you know, say the ancient sages.
So what is this enemy that shocked and shook the world to a screeching halt, humbling nations great and small?
SARS-CoV-2 is not a living organism. It has no traditional trappings of life, such as motion, metabolism and reproduction. In other words, the virus can’t crawl, jump, swim or fly: it is moved by humans. It has no physical and chemical processes to build the basic element of life – the cell, and to maintain and replace it. It has no capacity to reproduce sexually or asexually; it has to hijack the reproductive mechanism of a host to replicate.
This virus is nothing but a cell, a genetic material (RNA) that holds the instruction in making copies of itself, enclosed in shell or membrane of sugar and fat with tens or even hundreds of spikes of protein that circle around it like a crown, or corona. The virus is very much smaller than a human cell; it’s one-thousandth smaller than the width of an eyelash.
Once the virus gets into a human airway, its protein spikes make it easy for it to attach and penetrate the cell of its host and hijack the latter’s reproductive mechanism to make its own replicas.
Like other respiratory viruses, SARS –CoV-2 tend to infect and replicate in two places: In the nose and throat, where they are highly contagious, or lower in the lungs, where they spread less easily but may cause much deadly damage resulting from the reaction of the immune system.
When coughed or sneezed out by its host, the million replicas may find new hosts or other victims and multiply exponentially.
We are told of ways to contain and defeat this virus. Unfortunately, the mechanism how the measures work and their efficacy are far from being adequately communicated to the public in simple and understandable manner, reason, perhaps, why they are not being heeded by many. We review and explain the various measures here.
Deny the Virus of Hosts
The first and primus order of battle is to deny the virus of hosts – not offer ourselves as hospitable hosts to the virus.
Everyone should make it, therefore, a habit to observe the following as encouraged by health authorities.
- Social Distancing. Avoiding crowds reduce greatly the risk of catching the virus. Just one infected person in a crowd is enough to make a great number sick in fraction second of contact. Droplets from a cough or sneeze spread millions of virus replicas to within a radius of 6 feet or 1.8 meters. This is the safe distance you have to maintain from anyone in public places. Lately, the US Center for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that SARS-CoV-2 stays airborne for some time in an enclosed room with less ventilation. So stay away from enclosures.
- Stay-at-home. Unless for essential reasons, such as to report to work, to consult with a physician or to buy medicines and food, one, especially the vulnerable population, the elderly and those with health preconditions, e.g., diabetes, heart, respiratory and neurological ailments, ought to remain at home to avoid infection.
- Face Masks. Wearing appropriate face mask in public places also reduces the risk of catching the virus, and in spreading it, in case the wearer is unknowingly infected.
- Face Shields. A face shield is primarily used for eye protection for the person wearing it. At this time, it is not known what level of protection a face shield provides to people nearby from the spray of respiratory droplets from the wearer. There is currently not enough evidence to support the effectiveness of face shields for source control. We should be reminded that the coronavirus may remain active and contagious in plastic surfaces for as long as three days. Proper care should be observed in using plastic face shields.
Anyway, because public transport commuters are directed by authorities to wear a face shield and, considering that a face shield is not a-one-use protection material, it should be thoroughly disinfected after every use.
5. Touching. Do not touch your face, particularly your nose, mouth and eyes while in public or crowded places. You might have touched an object that is saturated with virus from respiratory droplets of an infected person. Avoid touching anything in public places unless it is so necessary.
Destroying the Virus
- Hand Washing. To avoid the possibility of infection by touch, wash your hands thoroughly for some 20 seconds as often as possible when you are in public places. Use soap – bar soap, liquid soap, laundry detergent and the like. A 20-second of hand washing with soap breaks apart the fragile, fatty membrane that holds the virus together.
- Disinfectants. Rub your hands with disinfecting agents with at least 70 percent ethanol alcohol, if hand washing is not possible. This will also puncture the shell and destroy the virus like in hand washing. Disinfect objects that are commonly touched like doorknobs, railings, seats, and tables.
- Ultraviolet Light. The UV has been used as disinfectant in healthcare facilities and water supplies for a century. It disintegrates the genetic material of the virus and thus puts to a stop its replication. It is not, however, advised to use on body parts because it can damage the human cells.
- Heat. It is reported that extreme heat near boiling point disentangles, and destroys the protein spikes and the fatty membrane of the virus, prohibiting it to attach and enter the cells of its host, and therefore its chance to replicate and multiply. The heat of fever thrown by the immune system to disable the virus is accordingly insufficient to do the job.
This probably explains the mechanism of steam inhalation. It destroys the spikes of the virus and disables those that are lodged in the nasal and throat track. However, many health authorities have discouraged the use of steam inhalation because its efficacy is not accordingly supported by science. Moreover, the practice could risk accidental burning.
Nonetheless, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that “heat at 56°C [132.8°F] kills the SARS coronavirus at around 10000 units per 15 minutes.” The SARS coronavirus behaves similarly to COVID-19, which leads experts to believe that the novel coronavirus would have a similar fate at that temperature.
How does it work exactly? Well, heat is thought to affect the coronavirus in part because it is an enveloped virus with a lipid bilayer. According to BBC, “research on other enveloped viruses suggests that this oily coat makes the viruses more susceptible to heat than those that do not have one.”
It should be noted that Filipinos in the South practice Tuob (steam inhalation with herbs direct from newly boiled water) for generations as folklore treatment for fever, colds and flu and other body malaise.
In fighting an enemy, especially millions of invisible hardy enemy, anything that works is good. But as always, be careful.
(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. William R. Adan, Ph.D., is retired professor and former chancellor of Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental, Philippines.)