Covid, flu, and the fight against airborne viruses

Covid research has given us some unexpected insight into the flu: Contrary to what most of us have believed since forever, we’re not likely to catch the flu by touching contaminated surfaces. Yes, the viruses for flu and Covid can both survive on surfaces for some time, but the experiments demonstrating that used industrial strength amounts of virus–more than you’d find in real life–and that skewed the results. What’s more, a lot of the viral particles the experiments found were no longer infectious. It was viral RNA, which is “more like the corpse of the virus” than like the virus itself according to Emmanuel Goldman, of Rutgers University. 

Goldman was the first person to challenge the hygiene theater that had people sanitizing their groceries, washing their hands, and singing “Happy Birthday” to make sure they’d washed long enough. 

Or maybe it was only in Britain that people sang “Happy Birthday.” It was recommended by our then-prime minister–what was his name?–as a way to know you’d scrubbed for twenty seconds.

To be fair, that was relying on the medical advice available at the time. If he’d been marginally competent in other ways, I might forgive him.

Of course, I might not, but that’s a different post, and one I don’t plan to write. We could’ve skipped both the hand washing and the singing. Like Covid, the flu is airborne, and that’s how we’re most likely to catch it. During the first year of the pandemic, when people were still taking masks seriously (in spite of the people who hadn’t figured out that their noses were part of their breathing apparatus and that their chins weren’t), flu transmission went down to almost nothing.

Irrelevant photo: An azalea, now blooming indoors.

All that Covid-inspired hand washing did do one thing for us: It improved food safety.

Having called time on hygiene theater, Goldman is now pointing us toward a way out of the pandemic: 

Respiratory viruses like COVID-19 and the flu spread primarily indoors, so we need a safe virus-killing reagent that can be pre-deployed in occupied spaces. As it happens, we already have one.

“Triethylene glycol (TEG) is an air sanitizer that has been shown to be safe for humans to breathe at low concentrations. It’s also been found to kill viruses on surfaces and in the air at those same low concentrations. Given the science, regulatory agencies should fast-track approval of TEG-based air treatments.”

Will they? No idea.

A UK government study evaluates its safety this way: “There is some evidence that repeated exposures to a glycol-based aerosol may result in respiratory tract irritation, with cough, shortness of breath and tightness of the chest. However, it is not possible to extrapolate the findings to other workplaces/settings or to longer-term exposure impacts, without further research.” 

It’s generally used to make theatrical fog. That’s what the bit about “other workplaces” means.

 

A Report from the Department of Covid-Fighting Gizmos

This is going to sound like I’m wearing the proverbial tinfoil hat, but a gizmo that uses no batteries and no wires can detect the presence of Covid in air. It uses a “magnetostrictive clad plate composed of iron, cobalt and nickel, generating power via alternative magnetization caused by vibration.” I have no idea what that means, although I could define every last one of the words–or I could if I looked up magnetostrictive. Why bother when I still wouldn’t follow it? That’s why I’m quoting. 

I can’t give you a link on this, because it came as a download. The article’s title is the poetic “Batteryless and wireless device detects coronavirus with magnetostrictive composite plates.” If you ask Lord Google nicely, he may lead you to something at least vaguely related. 

Exactly what you do with the contraption once you have it is up to you. I imagine sending it into a roomful of people on the back of a small, dog-shaped robot and waiting for it to report back before I go in. If it’s not safe, I’ll just go home, thanks.

Why’s the robot dog shaped? To add a bit of charm to my tinfoil-hat look.

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Another invention allows you–or if not you, at least someone–to watch viruses die as they try to make their way through masks. 

I know. I prefer a book myself. Or TV. Or, hell, social media if I get desperate. But still, the thing’s out there and someone wants to use it.

What does it do? It gets viruses to light up when they die, and by doing that they tell us that very few viruses get all the way through multilayered FP2 masks. That’s reassuring, but the process can also identify what materials are most effective at killing viruses. In other words, we don’t need the dog-shaped robot for this one. People who design masks will find it useful. The rest of us can give it a miss.

 

Coordinating information on long Covid

Worldwide, some 100 million people are believed to be living with long Covid, and a new questionnaire is trying to get a better picture of its impact, giving researchers better information. 

Existing questionnaires don’t cover the full spectrum of its symptoms. It’s not just fatigue; it can also be vomiting, incontinence, erectile dysfunction, hair loss, and so much other other fun stuff. The new questionnaire breaks the symptoms into 16 categories and uses a single scale to measure their severity, nad it can be “e-migrated, translated, and cross-culturally validated,” which I think means it’s set up to be translated into hundreds of languages. Accurately. Taking into account the cultural context in which it’ll be used. 

So far, it’s been approved for use in 50 countries.

 

New drugs in the works

A couple of Covid drugs look promising. Others are in the works, but let’s not spread ourselves too thin. We’ll look at two.

One of them is already used to treat a liver disease (primary biliary cholangitis, in case anyone asks), so its safety has already been tested and its patent has expired, which means it doesn’t cost a fortune. What’s more, it’s easy to store, it’s easy to ship, and it can carry a tune even when a symphony orchestra’s playing an entirely different one. It never loses its temper. What’s not to like?

Dr. Fotios Sampaziotis, of Cambridge University, explained it this way: “Vaccines protect us by boosting our immune system so that it can recognize the virus and clear it, or at least weaken it. But vaccines don’t work for everyone—for example patients with a weak immune system—and not everyone have access to them. Also, the virus can mutate to new vaccine-resistant variants.

“We’re interested in finding alternative ways to protect us from SARS-CoV-2 infection that are not dependent on the immune system and could complement vaccination. We’ve discovered a way to close the door to the virus, preventing it from getting into our cells in the first place and protecting us from infection.”

The timing’s good on this one, because the virus has out-evolved the antivirals we’ve relied on. And because it works on the human cell rather than aiming at Covid’s spike protein, it should be variant-proof.

It’s done well in small clinical trials and will be going into larger ones.

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Another drug, in an earlier stage of development, also promises to be variant-proof. It’s called an ACE2 decoy, and it works by luring the virus to itself, so it ignores the cells’ ACE2 receptors, which is the normal route for infection. Once it’s done that, it takes off the top of Covid’s spike, which inactivates it.  

It sounds ugly, but there’s a microscopic war going on in there all the time. 

The drug could potentially be used against other coronaviruses, which enter human cells the same way. It hasn’t been tested in humans yet but they’re moving it in that direction.