How to "Kill" a Virus

Here are some practical tips that I have gathered from top experts in Infectious Disease from Harvard, Hopkins and other top institutions as well as my friends in the medical profession.

Please note that the information below is not specific to coronavirus COVID-19. There is very little data on that specific virus as this point, since it is new, but what I am about to teach you is virology 101, so I imagine that most of the information will hold true for the coronavirus as we learn more.

Either way, it is useful info for influenza and most other viruses. I will go through the basics of viral physiology as it relates to ways to keep your family safe.

I hope you find this useful.

Here we go …

Viruses are a fascinating aspect of biology, there is an ongoing debate as to whether they are truly ‘alive’ since they are not able to replicate on their own. One can consider them as not exactly a living organism, but instead a type of transmittable genetic programming that re-purposes other cells molecular machinery in order to replicate.

In order to do this, the virus must introduce its genetic code into the infected cell. This can come in the form of DNA which we are all familiar with from films like Jurassic Park and RNA, but conceptually they are the same.

These DNA and RNA molecules are extremely delicate and thus must be wrapped up in a protective coating called the viral ‘capsid’. Some viruses are ‘naked’ and have only a protein coating around their genetic material while others are ‘coated’ with fat.

(Have I lost you yet? Stick with it. We get to the good stuff real soon, but some background on this can be helpful…
… now, back to the nerdy stuff….)

The genetic material must be “injected” into one of your cells for it to be able to thrive. Once inside one of your cells, a virus can take over the host molecular machinery and massively increase in number until the cell can not survive and it ‘explodes’ releasing millions of viral particles which can further infect other cells.

One way to reduce the initial infection by a virus is to “kill” the virus on the surfaces that we touch.

How can this be accomplished?

Let’s consider what we have learned so far about viral physiology and consider how we can exploit their weaknesses.

Overall viruses are fragile and (at least in the case of coated viruses) depend on the integrity of their lipid coating for protection as well as infectivity.

How can we destroy this lipid membrane?

We do this every day (or at least we should be!) – by washing our hands with soap or any other ‘detergent’. These detergent molecules are designed to interact well with both the fatty lipids of cell membranes as well as the water molecules we use to wash them off.

Therefore, when you wash your hands, one half of the soap molecule sticks to the lipid layer of the viral coating and the other half gets pulled off by the water, thus tearing the virus up into non-infectious pieces.

What about surfaces? It’s often impractical to use detergent or soaps on household surfaces – imagine trying to soap down your kitchen counter without making a huge mess!

So instead we can attack the virus at a different target – the proteins that make up the layer of coating under the lipid layer – the capsid.

Protein molecules are like origami, perfectly and beautifully folded into functional forms. However, they can be unfolded or ‘de-natured’ by various methods including heat and chemicals.

This is what happens to egg white when you fry an egg!

This explains why using hot water or steam is effective in sterilization, and similarly, alcohol molecules are able to pull apart the folded protein; specifically, the alcohol concentration must be at least 65% which explains why using your wine to sterilize a surface won’t work (but it might help for your stress)!

Another chemical concoction that works similarly is a mixture of water and household bleach – this is actually one of the best ways to sterilize a surface if practical.

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Here are the most important points to take away:

  • A virus is not a living organism, but a protein molecule, often covered by a protective layer of fat, which, when absorbed by the cells of the eyes, nose and mouth changes their genetic code and converts the host cells.
  • Since the virus is not a living organism but a protein molecule, it is not killed, but decays on its own. The disintegration time depends on the temperature, humidity and type of material where it lies.
  • A virus outside a cell could ‘die’ because its insertion envelope or machinery could become damaged. Some viruses don’t survive long outside a host because their envelopes dry up, but some viruses can survive very long periods outside a cell, and then infect later.
  • Viruses spread in many ways. Upper respiratory viruses (coughs and colds) are often spread through coughing and sneezing in the droplets that are expelled.
  • Viruses tend to be very fragile; the only thing that protects them is a thin outer layer of fat. That is why soap or detergent is the best remedy, because the foam cuts the fat (that is why you have to rub so much: for 20 seconds or more, to make a lot of foam).
  • Heat melts fat; this is why it is so good to use hot water for washing hands, clothes and everything
  • Alcohol or any mixture with alcohol over 65% dissolves fat, especially the external lipid layer of the virus.
  • A mixture with 1 part bleach and 5 parts water directly dissolves the protein, breaks it down from the inside.
  • Antibiotics do not help. The virus is not a living organism like bacteria.
  • When a virus is attached to a surface, it disintegrates over time. This varies by virus but here are some numbers to consider (this absolutely may not hold true for corona but are some general recommendations I have learned over the years).
    • Approximately,
      • 3 hours (fabric)
      • 4 hours (wood)
      • 24 hours (cardboard)
      • 42 hours (metal)
      • 72 hours (plastic)
  • Viral molecules remain more stable in external cold temperatures
  • They also need moisture to stay stable, and darkness. Therefore, dehumidified, dry, warm and bright environments will degrade it faster.
  • UV LIGHT on any object that may contain it, may break down the virus protein.
  • A virus can not (in general) go through healthy skin (ie you usually can’t touch a virus and get sick, you usually have to expose it to a mucous membrane like your mouth or nose).
  • Vinegar is NOT thought to be useful for viruses because it does not break down the protective layer of fat (but it is still a great cleaning tool in general).
  • SPIRITS or VODKA probably won’t protect you. The strongest vodka is 40% alcohol, and you need 65% (unless we take a trip to the Smokey Mountains to make some moonshine).
  • LISTERINE is 65% alcohol so may help.
  • The more confined the space, the more concentration of the virus there can be. The more open or naturally ventilated, the less.
  • Keep your NAILS SHORT so that the virus does not hide there.
  • You have to wash your hands after touching any surface for optimal protection.

I hope you found virology 101 helpful. As I said in the intro, there is still a lot to learn about COVID. But COVID is an upper respiratory virus so likely follows many of the same principals as its viral buddies like influenza and rhinovirus.


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