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Antiviral Theatrics?

Update: more details on this here. There’s a rationale for this, but it may or may not be a good one!

This will be a very rare link indeed for me, to the People’s Daily Twitter account out of China. I’d seen some clips like this before, but wasn’t sure of their provenance. This, though, is an official organ of the Chinese state – none more so – showing all sorts of white-fog-spraying devices being deployed outdoors, with the caption “Full-front disinfection work has started in #Wuhan, an effort to contain the spread of #coronavirus“.

But what the heck? I am at a loss to say what this stuff might be. I asked the same question on Twitter, and the answers were mostly variants on my own thought, that it’s basically “safety theater”. The problem is, there are such things as aerosol spray insecticides. And there are aerosol spray general antimicrobials (although I have trouble believing that you could get much good out of them deployed in the fashion shown, on city streets). But there are, to my knowledge, no open-spray viricides. I mean, viruses aren’t alive, for one thing, and the sorts of things that are used for viral contamination depend on broad denaturing chemical activity (think bleach) or physical wiping/sequestration (cleaning surfaces off).

I’m not seeing anything like that here that makes any sense. Honestly, I have to wonder if I’m looking at nothing more than fog machine mixture (usually glycerine/water or something of the sort). Maybe there’s something in the mix that someone thinks will do some good against coronavirus particles – I doubt if they’re correct, if so – or maybe the whole thing is just meant to show that the Authorities Are Doing Something. Even if that something is just distributing impressive blasts of white fog under the heading of “full-front disinfection”. Whatever that is. This sort of thing actually makes me have less confidence in the Chinese government, and I wonder how it’s going over among the intended audience.

Ideas, speculation, and pointers to other sources of information are welcome in the comments.

49 comments on “Antiviral Theatrics?”

  1. jeff says:

    Next, Chinese officials will outlaw the use of manual typewriters because they can spread the Smith Corona virus. Makes as much sense as the mobile smoke machine corps.

    1. Dr. Manhattan says:

      Nah, everyone knows it’s spread by a brand of beer….

      1. db says:

        It’s common knowledge the proper treatment for Coronavirus is co-infection with Lyme Disease.

        1. KG says:

          …applied at ice cold conditions.

          1. The Knack says:

            With background music of “My-my-my-my-corona”

  2. Cynic says:

    My own gut reaction is that the “safety theater” is intended for the citizens. Doing something harmless (or only marginally harmful) to make the people feel safe enough to go out and be productive again seems broadly like the kind of move the Chinese government would make.

    NOTE: this is NOT based on additional outside information. Please don’t imagine that it is anything other than speculation.

    1. MTK says:

      Ha! My thought was actually the opposite in terms of the effect on the populace.

      It is safety theater, but I was thinking it might actually be meant to keep people from going outside.

  3. Dave says:

    I’m guessing (hoping?) that those are spraying some sort of Chlorine bleach mixture, which will absorb/denaturize the airborne virons. We’ve seen information out of China that the virus can be airborne, which is really bad news.

    We’ve also seen information that they are cremating the virus victim’s bodies. One hopes that the crematoriums have adequate safeguards against virons escaping up the exhaust stack (e.g., a secondary combustion chamber). But, I don’t know if anyone has studied Chinese crematoriums, and I don’t even know if anyone knows at what temperature the virons will be denatured. Based on the amount of Sulfur Dioxide being reported over Wuhan, there’s a LOT of burning of some Sulfur containing material going on. Or, could the spraying be an attempt to reduce the Sulfur Dioxide concentration in the air of Wuhan?

    1. MTK says:

      I don’t think the high sulfur dioxide levels around Wuhan are due to high crematorium activity. I say that because correspondingly high NO2 levels are not observed. The burning of a body generates about 8x more NO2 than SO2. A PLoS paper looked at the emissions of Beijing area crematoria and found the released NOx was anywhere from 5-20x higher than SO2 depending on the crematorium design.

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5931459/pdf/pone.0194226.pdf

      In short, both SO2 and NO2 levels should be elevated relative to other areas of China for the SO2 levels to be due to the large-scale cremation. The fact that it isn’t would indicate the SO2 is due to other sources.

  4. Nick K says:

    The Chinese authorities are reliably reported to be welding shut the doors of apartment buildings in Hubei Province with the occupants inside to enforce the quarantine.

  5. Who Dr. says:

    Looks like a sequel album cover to Pink Floyd’s “Wish you were here” to be called “Glad you are not here”

  6. Wavefunction says:

    There’s a scene in the recent Oscar-winning movie “Parasite” where a poor Korean family sits in their living room and the father insists on keeping the windows open while the streets are being disinfected so that their house will be disinfected for free. There’s more than a generous helping of dark humor in that movie, and I suspect there’s some similar dark humor here too.

    1. basement family says:

      The people were the parasites not a virus

  7. Pierre R Bedard says:

    Here my tweet yesterday about the video @PRB51
    I do not know
    But
    Note the range of protective clothing: from none for bystanders to quite minimal for the workers
    None of the people seem affected by the fumes
    Is this real?

  8. Druid says:

    Vaporized hydrogen peroxide is effective for decontaminating equipment, rooms, hospitals and aircraft, against a wide range of pathogens including viruses. I don’t think it looks as foggy as this, but to get it to work outdoors, I would consider making it into a denser droplet formulation to fall onto surfaces. I guess anyone exposed would go platinum blonde.

    1. VHPanon says:

      No, it does not look as foggy as this – it doesn’t look foggy at all, actually, even coming straight out of the injector. It needs mid-low humidity and clean, dry surfaces of fairly specific composition to work well. It’s not compatible with just any old materials hanging around, and outdoors in an uncontrolled environment it dissipates BDL about 2 meters from the source. There’s a lot of prep work that goes into decontaminating a really large space, if you actually want to accomplish that.

      I would not be surprised if hydrogenbond’s suggestion is more or less correct re: vaping liquid. You could add any kind of flavoring to it that would suggest something medicinal, I suspect? Maybe a little thymol, menthol, camphor?

      1. Druid says:

        Thanks for the information (sincerely). It would make more sense to decontaminate surfaces which are handled such as hand-rails rather than the pavement, although we don’t need clean-room standards it is not ebola. But a decontaminating vapour which cannot be seen is not convincing at all, so while the fog may be theatrical, it is an understandable exaggeration. Have any chemists on this forum ever posed with a flask of copper sulfate solution for a photographer?

  9. Yohanan Weininger says:

    A slight chlorine spray was reportedly effective in this 2015 Japanese veterinary study on Newcastle and chicks.

    Aerosol Disinfection Capacity of Slightly Acidic Hypochlorous Acid Water Towards Newcastle Disease Virus in the Air: An In Vivo Experiment.
    Hakim H, et al. Avian Dis 2015. PMID 26629621
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26629621

    1. Mad Chemist says:

      Old news. The Germans discovered that back in 1915.

  10. Glen Weaver says:

    Virosil (product of Sanosil) is applied by foggers, and it rated as virucidal. Around 10% H2O2 and .01% silver nitrate. Per manufacture “The combination of the two elements form a complex solution which kills all forms of bacteria, viruses, spores including Staphylococcus aureus, Aspergillus niger, Salmonella, Pseudomonas, MRSA & H5N1 virus.”

    Foggers were part of US Army BW decon equipment in the 1970s, though I think for use indoors.

    So yes, fogging with appropriate solution is considered safe and effective. No idea what the PLA is using there, but no reason to believe it is purely symbolic.

    1. James Millar says:

      Silver nitrate? Well, it should be self-documenting then!

    2. loupgarous says:

      USAMRIID, when they wanted to make sure Ebola reston was killed throughout the inside of the Hazelton Research primate facility in Reston, VA, used electric frypans to vaporize paraformaldehyde and distribute the vapors throughout the building, according to Richard Preston’s account of the Ebola reston outbreak, The Hot Zone. Paper strips impregnated with subtilis niger were placed in desk drawers and other areas, then collected some time after the paraformaldehyde had had a chance to permeate the area amd examined – according to the people Preston interviewed, if the s. niger was killed, the Army was confident any viruses in the area would be as well. This procedure was named by the Army after the consumer-grade hot plates used for the vaporization – a “Sunbeam cookout”.

      This is a link to a 1969 Ft. Detrick (USAMRIID) paper describing the disinfection method and its effectiveness. Not that I expect formaldehyde or its polymers to play any role in the disinfection of Wuhan or other Chinese cities, but this is how the US Army’s biodefense labs made sure interior spaces infected with dangerous biologicals were sterilized as late as 1989.

      1. Isidore says:

        I recall that the same method, vaporizing paraformaldehyde on electric pans to distribute the vapors throughout an enclosed area, was used ca. 1990 to decontaminate a cell culture facility that had been infected with mycoplasma.

        1. Barry says:

          but Mycoplasma pneumoniae are alive (and can be killed) quite unlike corona virus

          1. Jed Burns says:

            I think the intention is to cross-link any available amine into oblivion (whether its attached to a viral capsid, RNA, etc)

  11. Chairman Mao says:

    Could use those foggers in SF during JPM. But you’ll figure out the composition when your LCMSMS’s start picking up contaminants in your HTS or test compounds.

  12. cynical1 says:

    Actually, 80% ethanol + 5% isopropanol is effective as a surface antiviral. So stock up on your grain alcohol and rubbing alcohol for the pandemic!

  13. hydrogenbond says:

    I’m thinking it’s bubblegum scented vaping liquid. Now that the flavored stuff is banned in the US and can’t be sold they need to use it up somehow!

  14. KG says:

    My guess is that that’s a reused photo an AC/DC plays Wuhan concert poster.

    That might even be Angus Young in the photo.

  15. Frank says:

    People’s Daily is not known to promote science, unfortunately. For example, it has been claiming some traditional Chinese medicine can help treat the new Coronavirus. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/02/03/asia-pacific/science-health-asia-pacific/herbal-remedies-coronavirus-traditional-chinese-medicine/#.XkMhmchKhaQ

  16. gippgig says:

    It won’t help much if transmission is primarily airborne, but has anyone tested whether antimicrobial copper is effective against coronaviruses?

    1. James Millar says:

      Conversely, COVID-19 is doing a job on copper (prices, link in name). Couldn’t resist.

    2. Andrew Cross says:

      Yep. See this for Human Coronavirus 229E persistence on standard materials and rapid inactivation on copper / copper alloys

      https://mbio.asm.org/content/6/6/e01697-15

      Raises some interesting questions about materials: durability, recyclability, antimicrobial efficacy (and how that efficacy is tested: test conditions need to match usage conditions closely, and microbial reduction needs to be rapid).

      This translational article is a good starting-point for assessment of strategic use of copper materials for touch-surface items: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4561453/

  17. J Severs says:

    Very much like the informed considerations.

  18. Where's the sauce, cap? says:

    There are antimicrobial aerosol sprays, as per Derek’s own admission. And those who have travelled on certain international flights will know that sometimes the crew members will walk down the cabin and spray everyone with some kind of disinfectant before disembarking.

    It is now known that a person with a healthy immune system can fight off the coronavirus.

    It has now also been announced that there may be many more infected people than the official reported number who have not bothered to admit themselves into a hospital.

    Adding all this together I feel that perhaps the intentions of the Chinese disease control agency(ies) here is not necessarily false advertisement, but rather to prevent infected people who have not admitted themselves into a hospital from catching any other additional diseases which may compromise their immune system further.

  19. Nile says:

    Yes, it’s theatre.

    If it gets people to raise their game for personal hygiene, it’s effective.

    I would be reassured rather more, if there was footage of hand-wipes and gels at every office and shop and cafeteria outside the quarantine zone, posters and loudspeaker exhortations to use them, 100% compliance with face masks, and every tram, bus and train in China being stopped every thirty minutes to wipe down every pole and grabrail; and emptied out every hour to wipe down every seat and surface.

    Ditto washrooms, cafeterias, vending machines and public spaces.

    None of these measures makes a huge difference: but small measures add up and epidemiology is a numbers game – unless you’re dealing with measles, you can get the transmission rate below 1 without a total shutdown od society.

    Also, virus particles are tough: but they are far more persistent – effectively, far more infectious – in droplets, and skin flakes, and specks of mucus and biological material containing more-or-less intact cells. Bactericidal gels, and ordinary household cleaning products can therefore cut transmission rates significantly more than their limited ‘viricidal’ capabilities would suggest.

  20. Kent G. Budge says:

    It seems clear the target audience isn’t you, Derek.

    Or anyone in the biomedical fields.

  21. Billy Danze says:

    it’s an aerosolized inoculant.

  22. FoodScientist says:

    lol silver nitrate fog would turn everything black. You would think shutting down factories would help. All the particulate matter likely blocks some of the sun’s UV spectrum. Non-penetrative ionizing radiations seems like it’s very effective at killing small things, while doing little damage to large things.

  23. Jari says:

    “There are antimicrobial aerosol sprays, as per Derek’s own admission.”

    And we are talking about virus….

  24. Hypochlorous Acid fogging makes sense.

  25. Jeremy Riemersma says:

    In 2015 china started using mobile and handheld fog machines in an attempt to clean the air. They still continue to do it to this day along with dubi and other areas with poor air quality. It wasn’t until covid 19 that people really mentioned these and are now being used to increase global pandemic allowing some governments to increase their spying on citizens using a false flag of covid 19.

  26. Adam says:

    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2135271/

    Propylene glycol is an antiviral, as is triethylene glycol. So is glycerin.

    That study shows that it has those effects specifically when vaporized. Those are also the ingredients in many fog machines. So yes, a literal fog machine could have antiviral properties.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Unfortunately, that is a paper from 1942 and it’s also directed towards antibacterial effect and not antiviral.

      1. Johnny says:

        Yes the study us also about antiviral effects. Read just the title or the abstract.

        The fact that it’s so old also means that there have not been many new results.

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