Stupid Aerosols

Another one on coronavirus. Could get a bit technical but I’ll try not to.

The WHO, which has expended most of its energies lately in its War on Steam and Flavours, has decided the latest coronavirus outbreak is stabilising. It’s at the end of the article.

It is nowhere near stabilising. Someone who came from Singapore (it is not clear whether they visited Singapore or originated there and it really doesn’t matter any more) has infected twelve British people and more from other nationalities. It happened in a ski resort in Austria. The original infected person did not get sick until they returned to the UK.

This disease was classed with an R0 of 4. This means that an infected person will infect four others and it also indicates a disease that’s nearly impossible to control. This one patient infected twelve. Before showing any symptoms themselves. Taking it seriously yet? I am.

There are people out there blaming it all on any Chinese person they see. It’s far too late for that. Besides, I’m betting a very large proportion of ethnic Chinese in the west have never been to China. The Westerners who have been there on holiday or for business since last November are far more of a risk, especially since you’re all avoiding the wrong people. Well, those who came back within the last 14 days. Yes, Prince Andrew, that’s you too. Viruses care nothing for social standing, you know.

This little freak can survive up to five days on a damp smooth surface. Longer than cold or flu viruses. It can incubate for 14 days in a host, while shedding virus particles, before that host shows symptoms. It had been considered to be spread by contact but as the article linked above says, it can also spread by aerosol. Tiny floating bits of sneeze-water can carry it quite some distance and keep it viable.

My first thought on reading that was ‘Huh?’ Every other respiratory virus and bacterium does this. Why would they ever think this one wouldn’t? Of course it bloody does.

It’s why I thought the drivers on those buses were taking a great risk and why I was astounded that the case-on-a-plane prompted them to only look for the nearby-seated passengers. Of course it spreads in aerosols. Why wouldn’t it? And even if it was later found not to, why would you not assume that it could (since pretty much everything else does) and take appropriate precautions?

It’s not so much the virus that’s dangerous here, it’s the slapdash approach to it and the ridiculous coverups to quell public fears. Look, you need to be afraid of it, you need to avoid it or it becomes endemic.

However, this isn’t meant to be a scare story even though that’s pretty much what I do.

It will spread through aerosols, yes. Someone who shows no symptoms and who has no idea they are infected could spread it all over an auditorium. However…

It’s an RNA virus. Not a retrovirus like HIV. It doesn’t convert its RNA into DNA and hide in your cells for decades before emerging with an ‘Ah-ha! Gotcha!’. Its genetic code is RNA which is not as stable as DNA. It’s very susceptible to drying out and to UV light in particular. It’s also killed by bleach but then so is everything else, including you. So don’t try bleaching yourself.

I have seen panicked people on Twitter showing disinfectant bottles that list coronavirus as one of the things it kills. ‘How did they know about it before it appeared?’ Coronavirus is not new. This variant is new. And those disinfectants will kill this one too.

Okay, so, trying not to get into full technical lecturer mode… RNA is what DNA is transcribed into so the information in the DNA can be passed on to the ribosomes to make proteins. The DNA stays where it is. The RNA is a sort of temporary photocopy of the main blueprints and it’s not supposed to last long. It’s just sent to the ribosomes (the bits in the cell that make proteins) to tell them what to make. I’ll avoid all the mRNA and tRNA stuff out of uncharacteristic mercy.

DNA viruses use the cell’s own photocopier to send their information to the ribosomes. Retroviruses use an enzyme called ‘reverse transcriptase’ to turn their RNA into DNA then either hide in the host DNA or use the cell’s own photocopier like the DNA viruses.

Coronavirus is an RNA virus. It goes directly to the ribosomes and ignores the host DNA. The first thing it makes is an enzyme that buggers up the cell’s own photocopier so the virus gets full access to the ribosomes. Then it makes more copies of itself and a protein portal that sits in the host cell membrane to send those copies out into the world.

I hope you’ve followed this so far. Because of the way it works, it’s shedding new viruses before it infects enough of your own cells to make you sick. It’s not the only one doing this, it’s just unusual in that it can do this for 14 days before you fall over. None of the other coronaviruses have that much patience.

For those with a background in cell biology, microbiology or virology, here’s the technical stuff.

It is not invincible. If you can avoid catching a cold, you can avoid this too. It’s a little more difficult since you don’t know who will be the 14-day incubator and who will show symptoms faster. It is however, possible.

Okay. The aerosol is more of a risk indoors. Someone sneezes outdoors and even in still air (which we don’t have much of in the UK at the moment) it’s going to be seriously diluted in the atmosphere. It will be affected by air currents so small we can’t even feel them. It might go down to die in the dirt, it might be wafted high in the air to die in the stratosphere. There is still a risk of infection but that risk is far lower than it would be indoors.

At the moment, of course, if someone sneezed outside in the UK the virus would probably die in the air on the way to Denmark.

Indoors, well we brought this on ourselves. We have draughtproofed and hermetically sealed all our buildings now so we breathe in everything that is floating around, over and over. Those of us with fireplaces still will have the sneezed-out virus wafted up the chimney but fireplaces are becoming increasingly rare. Even frowned upon by those terrified of infection. Fire has kept humanity alive this far, we have abandoned it in recent years and it’s coming back to bite us. But that’s a different post.

Ultraviolet light will kill pretty much anything if the dose is high enough. RNA is far more susceptible to this than DNA so a coronavirus in sunlight will degrade pretty quickly. It’s an exponential decline and you only need one virus to infect but it does cut down the likely infection rate. You cannot use enough UV indoors to kill it or you’ll kill people too. You can include UV in your air filtration just as we use it in water supplies – well, mine at least. It works in small water supplies, it can’t deal with a whole town’s water supply because the water passes the UV too quickly.

Don’t go to large gatherings, ventilate your home, stay away from concentrations of people and you can avoid catching this thing. Whether someone is Chinese or has been to China in the last two weeks is no longer relevant. Pandora’s box is open, it’s all over the place now.

Those of us who have lived this way all along are feeling a bit smug right now. Especially smokers.

We’re happy to be excluded from society. We might end up as the only ones left.

13 thoughts on “Stupid Aerosols

  1. I’ll avoid all the mRNA and tRNA stuff out of uncharacteristic mercy.

    Spoilsport. An animation probably makes it easier to understand. I love that: all those molecules zipping around. It’s probably quite absurd that so few people understand what is happening inside the trillions of cells in their bodies.

    Yes, Prince Andrew, that’s you too. Viruses care nothing for social standing, you know.

    This little freak can survive up to five days on a damp smooth surface.

    That’s not a nice name to call a member of the Royal Family, even if he is a little freak. I can’t imagine him surviving for five days, though, without the royal servants. I can picture him, half starving, trying to figure out what to do with a pot noodle.

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      • My experiences with hardline fundamentalist neo-Darwinists, especially on Twitter, indicates that there is incredible ignorance about the very basics, which is why they prefer to knock religion and argue about definitions all day long and hope that their blind faith in ‘science’ wins the day anyway. “You don’t understand what a ‘theory’ is” is probably their favourite diversionary tactic. It’s funny, because they will produce all sorts of conflicting answers themselves.

        Most don’t seem to have heard of the ‘first self-replicating molecule’. I know that, strictly defined, evolution theory starts after the first living cell has magically appeared, but asking one of these people to explain to me how the first SRM came into being is a conversation-stopper. They often just disappear (to my relief) or ask what is a ‘SRM’ or they suggest it happened due to directed panspermia. It just couldn’t have been ‘directed’ by a deity, because that’s just silly.

        I heard one apologist for evolution theory complain about ‘aliens’ being portrayed as bipedal, but that’s human bias, I suppose. Or maybe it was that silly film about the ‘alien autopsy’.

        Enough already! My brain, finely-tuned by nature, is about to direct my highly-evolved legs towards the kitchen for a late lunch…

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  2. If you’re thinking of buying masks (before they all sell out in a few days time when panic sets in), the virus is approx 125nm diameter (0.125 microns, or 5 micro-inches), so check the particle penetration/capture rating is appropriate, as “dust masks” are worse than useless.
    Oh, and don’t touch anything outside the home, such as handrails, door handles, etc. Wearing disposable gloves and using hand-sanitiser might help too.
    Happy Trails!

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    • Face masks of all standard types are next to useless. I highlighted a variant on these masks to Leggy a few days ago, which does rather improve their effectiveness.

      Filter masks are usually made of hydrophobic polyester fibre, and this doesn’t do very well at capturing aerosols. They don’t stick to the filter fibres very well (most of the attraction is electrostatic) and tend to pass on through. If however you soak the mask in a 29% w/v solution of sodium chloride (common salt) with a 1% addition of a surfactant called Tween 20, then dry the mask out again, then you end up with the filter fibres covered in a layer of salt and surfactant.

      This is much better at capturing aerosols since when they hit the layer of salt, they stick and as the salt dries out again, it destroys virus particles very effectively. Now, this isn’t going to be all that effective with simple surgical masks which after all aren’t designed to protect the wearer from aerosols, but rather to trap the exhaled aerosols of the wearer.

      Were this solution to be used on commercial filter masks with proper nose pieces and exhalation valves then the effectiveness would be much higher, and it would constitute an effective way of limiting viral spread.

      Another useful trick is one suggested recently for combating influenza virus. UV light kills (or deactivates) viruses very effectively, but UV light also causes skin damage and eye cataracts in people. However if you put a high-pass filter in front of the UV source so that only very energetic UV is emitted, then this is equally effective but is stopped by the surface of human skin and by the tear layer on human (and animal) eyes. Aerosol particles are so small that this minimal penetration is sufficient to kill the virus inside.

      So, we can with some effort make the built environment very hostile indeed to viruses and we can defend against them, but both take intelligence that these days is sadly lacking.

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    • The good ones are already disappearing/going up in price.The cheapo dust masks (which are no damn use at all) are running out of stock.

      And the real panic hasn’t started yet.

      There are ‘activated charcoal’ face masks on sale that claim to be good against coronavirus. Charcoal absorbs gases, not particles. And any filter that does trap virus particles should be burned after use, not washed. That could turn out expensive if you have to go out often.

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    • They’re a bit small for nailing 😉 They’re smaller than the wavelength of visible light.

      Maybe Gritty Thunderbird can see them – if she can see a three-atom molecule, a virus must look like a boulder to her.

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  3. Pingback: Origin of Coronavirus? – Orphans of Liberty

  4. I’ve been following a sensible you tuber Dr John Campbell for updates about this and we could be approaching a perfect storm as a pandemic meets financial meltdown meets increased stupidity of humanity and distrust of governments meets…Oh I don’t know, Tom Jones becoming world dictator. Keep on raising the IQ of the internet as there is a lot of bollocks out there!

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