COVID-19: Why Chemistry Matters

  1. Much has been made of the need to wash your hands to destroy the SARS-Cov-2 virus.  Soap is a surface active agent like the lipids which make up the protective covering of the virus – only stronger.  It disrupts the lipid layer and leaves the contents open to the environment – this usually destroys the fragile RNA.
  2. Why is alcohol is used in hand sanitisers?  Above a certain percentage in a mixture with water, alcohol (and most usually ethanol or iso-propyl alcohol) can disrupt the lipid layer, but it also denatures the proteins, by disrupting the hydrogen bonding, which give them their specific shape and so renders them ineffective.
  3. With everyone washing their hands and using sanitisers, they extract lipids and water from the skin, drying it out.  Glycerin is often added to both soaps and sanitisers to counteract this side effect.  Glycerin is a humectant – it builds a shell of water around it and osmotic pressure drives more water into the locality.
  4. Given that SARS-Cov-2 is known to survive on surfaces, the use of bleaches to attack the virus there is also suggested.  Bleach operates by being a strong oxidising agent and attacks the proteins, which have amide links and easily removed hydrogen atoms and this molecular damage stops the virus from working.
  5. The spikes are what makes SARS-Cov-2 as dangerous as it is, but they might also be core to how we defeat it.  They are key to the antibody test that will tell patients if they have had COVID-19, and although vaccine is an umbrella term to describe a number of mechanisms, one way is to make a harmless part of the virus and train the immune system to react to it.  Those spikes are the basis of several vaccine developments that have been reported.