Protecting ourselves from the virus

By M.Aujayeb, Microbiologist

It is called the coronavirus and in the scientific world it is named SARS COV 2 (Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 of the genus Betacoronavirus). It is the causative agent of Covid-19.

It is a microorganism, not seen by the naked eyes, not even with the help of a light microscope. We need a sophisticated electron microscope to view its spherical shape with spikes/suckers. A virus, unlike a bacterium, is not an independent entity. It requires a living host to survive and reproduce by invading its host cells and taking over the system to live and replicate. Outside the host cell, the virus can hardly survive for long, may be some hours on surfaces: chairs, benches, doorknobs, bathroom, toilet seats, papers, plastics, etc., but it cannot reproduce outside the host cell.

That’s why the objective of the virus is to continually look for new hosts so that it continues to survive. It moves from one host (human or animal) to another by direct contact or by aerosols/droplets in air. Its endgame is to be spread as much as possible, which ensures its survival.

Our objective in turn is not to get infected, to break the chain of transmission and kill the virus when it is outside the host. To note: the virus is a RNA virus and it has a capsule made up of lipids (fats) and proteins. Soap, alcohol and other similar disinfectants disintegrate the capsule and kill the virus. Hence the campaign of hand washing and confinement.

The problem of controlling the viral spread is accentuated by the fact that the virus comes from wildlife – bats and pangolins (both animals facing extinction). It can be transmitted where humans and wildlife interact, like the live animal market in China. The virus may find humans an easier host.

There is also a limit to vaccines and developing immunity. The virus like many other RNA virus mutates enormously i.e. random changes occur as they replicate. Antibodies that would kill the virus would be ineffective against the mutated ones. The virus is labelled intelligent, aggressive, lethal, and it is here to stay if we do not stop its spread through social distancing, proper hygiene, and isolation.

Protecting ourselves

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is a term used to describe all items utilised to provide a protective barrier between you and potential harmful objects. These can range from UV, X-rays, chemicals, heat, cold to microbes. In the majority of the cases, they are not visible to the naked eyes. In our current state of affairs, PPE is a sine qua non to shield health care personnel from being infected by the coronavirus. The public at large can also use PPE to protect themselves.

Facial masks offer a barrier from outside contaminants. It can be a medical mask, the locally knitted one or a good piece of linen tightly fit over the mouth and nose. There will definitely be a considerable filter of the microbes.

In wearing a facial mask coupled with the social distancing, regular hand washing, use of sanitizers the risk of transmitting or getting infected by the coronavirus is considerably reduced. It should become mandatory for everyone in public places to wear a mask or to cover their mouth and nose appropriately.

Another lesson from foreign jurisdictions is the general disinfection/sanitisation of areas (outside) in supermarkets, hospitals, banks, and other offices where there is regular influx of visitors and where surfaces are likely to harbour the virus.

Let’s play safe.

* Published in print edition on 17 April 2020

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