SARS-CoV-2 Mutations; Hand Soaps and Sanitizers

A recent study released by the Los Alamos National Laboratory has generated a lot of buzz this past week or so about a SARS-CoV-2 mutation that is more virulent and transmissible. Please remember that this study has yet to be peer-reviewed, and some virologists and researchers are already critical of its findings. There is clearly an “infodemic” of both valid and misleading information arising daily – please be cautious in accepting what you read or hear. Over the next few weeks, you will probably be reading many hypotheses about coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 mutations. What we want to do here is give you basic knowledge about viral changes.

Lastly, we will finish this post with some tips for your household’s health regarding hand soaps and sanitizers.

Viral Changes

RNA Viruses

Coronaviruses are classified as RNA viruses like – and yet totally distinct from – the influenza and Ebola viruses.

So, you have the virus, which is classified into different categories, or genera. For instance, influenza viruses are categorized as such: influenza A virus, influenza B virus, influenza C virus, lsaavirus, Thogotovirus, and others.

Then, you have the subtypes. Many of us have heard of H1N1, a subtype of influenza A. Within the subtype, you have strains.


The word “mutation” brings to everyone’s mind horrific images of some sort of science fiction movie. A better word might be “transformation” regarding viruses. Scientifically, we use the noun “mutation” or the verb “mutate”.

Virus strains (and other types of microbes) mutate to survive. However, that does not mean that the virus mutated correctly or safely in order to survive. Oftentimes, mutations are nothing special and do nothing to help the virus survive. Other times, the mutation was done correctly to help survival – thus possibly causing it to be more transmissible or more dangerous.

Virus Strains & SARS-CoV-2

We know two things:

  • Virus strains can mutate into other strains
  • SARS-CoV-2 apparently has already mutated

The question is: has SARS-CoV-2 mutated enough into another distinct strain of SARS-CoV-2?

Some researchers say no and argue that SARS-CoV-2 is pretty stable. Other scientists disagree and contend that new more virulent transmissible strain evolved in February this year. The experts are still debating and verifying this situation.

Antigenic Drift & Vaccines

Antigenic drift is when viral mutations accumulate that cause a drift away from the ancestral strain.

Not to confuse coronavirus with influenza virus, but you may often hear on the news that the ‘flu vaccine is only effective in a certain percentage of vaccinated people one year and then a different percentage of efficacy another year. Scientists who study the flu predict what flu virus will be prevalent for a specific year and then also how that strain might have drifted – not always necessarily into a completely new strain. If they get the virus strain right but the type and amount of drift wrong, the vaccine may provide some cross-protection and symptoms may be milder.

Here is a good example. In 2012, Pfizer Animal Health released a study it funded of its vaccine for canine influenza H3N8 strain which was isolated from dogs in Iowa in 2005. The researchers found that the Iowa vaccine was effective against more recent strains isolated from other parts of the country. However, the researchers noted, “The greatest amount of divergence correlated with the more recent isolates.”

In essence, if SARS-CoV-2 drifts, the vaccines currently under development may not be completely protective. They could provide full or partial immunity to the virus, but we will not know the outcome for some time.

Hand Soaps and Hand Sanitizers

As you cruise down the aisle to restock on hand soap, you might be lulled into grabbing the one labeled antibacterial. Remember, antibacterial is not the same as antiviral. SARS-CoV-2 is a virus – not a bacteria.

In fact, evidence suggests that benzalkonium chloride – found in at least two over-the-counter antibacterial hand soaps – has less reliable activity against certain bacteria and viruses.

On the other hand, you may have thought antibacterial soaps were banned based on what we reported a few weeks ago. Not necessarily. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the over-the-counter sale of 19 active ingredients including triclosan. Long-term use of triclosan may have adverse effects on health if used for a long time and could be contributing to bacterial resistant to antibiotics.

However, three ingredients – benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride and chloroxylenol – were currently under study, according to a FDA article from May 2019.

Unless something changes, we suggest avoiding antibacterial hand soaps altogether. We don’t want to cause a secondary health crisis of bacterial resistance during a viral pandemic.

As well, read the label of your hand sanitizer. You want to make sure it contains at least 60% alcohol.

Stick with the basics: plain hand soap for hand washing, 60% alcohol for hand sanitizing, unexpired bleach for household cleaning, and face-covering mask, scarf or bandana when you visit public places.

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