In an incident that sparked widespread outrage across India in late March, officials in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh sprayed hundreds of migrant workers, including women and children, with a chemical solution to sanitize them, in a misguided attempt to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Since COVID-19 is a respiratory disorder, disinfecting a person's body or clothes cannot protect them from contracting the novel coronavirus, or help in containing the pathogen's spread.
Health officials reportedly doused the group with a diluted mixture of sodium hypochlorite – a bleaching agent harmful to humans, which led to complaints of skin rashes and eye irritation. The opposition termed the instance 'inhuman', compelling the state government to order an investigation into the mass 'chemical bath.'
"I don't think the officials thought this through," says Thomas Abraham, a professor with The University of Hong Kong, and a former consultant for the World Health Organisation (WHO) on risk communication. "Spraying people with bleach can prove to be harmful, and there is no guideline … that recommends it. This was some sort of a kneejerk reaction."
Although spraying individuals with chemicals led to a furor in the South Asian nation owing to its potential dangers, so-called "disinfection tunnels" have sprung up in crowded public places around the world, including malls, offices, airports, railway stations and markets. Touted as mass disinfectants, these tunnels spray individuals with chemical disinfectant liquids, mists or fumes through nozzles for a few seconds, purportedly to sanitize them -- though experts strongly condemn their use. The tunnels have appeared in at least 16 countries: India, Malaysia, Scotland, Albania, Argentina, Colombia, Singapore, China, Pakistan, France, Vietnam, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile, Mexico, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Russian President Vladimir Putin even reportedly has his own tunnel at his residence.
While U.S. visitors to Mexico are "disinfected" through these sanitizing tunnels, there is no evidence that the mechanism is currently in use within the United States. However, the situation could rapidly change with international innovators like RD Pack, an Israeli start-up, pushing for their deployment. Many American and multinational companies like Stretch Structures, Guilio Barbieri and Inflatable Design Works are also producing these systems. As countries gradually ease lockdown restrictions, their demand is on the rise -- despite a stringent warning from the WHO against their potential health hazards.
"Spraying individuals with disinfectants (such as in a tunnel, cabinet, or chamber) is not recommended under any circumstances," the WHO warned in a report on May 15. "This could be physically and psychologically harmful and would not reduce an infected person's ability to spread the virus through droplets or contact. Moreover, spraying individuals with chlorine and other toxic chemicals could result in eye and skin irritation, bronchospasm due to inhalation, and gastrointestinal effects such as nausea and vomiting."
Disinfection tunnels largely spray a diluted mixture of sodium hypochlorite, a chlorine compound commonly known as bleach, often used to disinfect inanimate surfaces. Known for its hazardous properties, the WHO, in a separate advisory on COVID-19, warns that spraying bleach or any other disinfectant on individuals can prove to be poisonous if ingested, and that such substances should be used only to disinfect surfaces.
Considering the effect of sodium hypochlorite on mucous membranes, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, an EU agency focussed on infectious diseases, recommends limited use of the chemical compound even when disinfecting surfaces – only 0.05 percent for cleaning surfaces, and 0.1 percent for toilets and bathroom sinks. The Indian health ministry also cautioned against spraying sodium hypochlorite recently, stating that its inhalation can lead to irritation of mucous membranes of the nose, throat, and respiratory tract.
In addition to the health hazards that such sterilizing systems pose, they have little utility, argues Indian virologist T. Jacob John. Since COVID-19 is a respiratory disorder, disinfecting a person's body or clothes cannot protect them from contracting the novel coronavirus, or help in containing the pathogen's spread.
"It's a respiratory infection, which means that you have the virus in your respiratory tract, and of course, that shows in your throat, therefore saliva, etc.," says John. "The virus does not survive outside the body for a long time, unless it is in freezing temperatures. Disinfecting a person's clothes or their body makes no sense."
Disinfection tunnels have limited, if any, impact on the main modes of coronavirus transmission, adds Craig Janes, director, School of Public Health and Health Systems at Canada's University of Waterloo. He explains that the nature of COVID-19 transmission is primarily from person-to-person, either directly, or via an object that is shared between two individuals. Measures like physical distancing and handwashing take care of these transmission risks.
"My view of these kinds of actions are that they are principally symbolic, indicating to a concerned population that 'something is being done,' to martial support for government or health system efforts," says Janes. "So perhaps a psychological benefit, but I'm not sure that this benefit would outweigh the risks."
"They may make people feel that their risk of infection has been reduced, and also that they do not have to worry about infecting others."
A recent report by Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), an international not-for-profit organization focused on sustainable health care around the world, states that disinfection tunnels have little evidence to demonstrate their efficacy or safety.
"If the goal is to reduce the spread of the virus by decontaminating the exterior clothing, shoes, and skin of the general public, there is no evidence that clothes are an important vector for transmission. If the goal is to attack the virus in the airways, what is the evidence that a 20-30 second external application is efficacious and safe?" the report questions. "The World Health Organization recommends more direct and effective ways to address hand hygiene, with interventions known to be effective."
If an infected person walks through a disinfection tunnel, he would still be infectious, as the chemicals will only disinfect the surfaces, says Gerald Keusch, a professor of medicine and international health at Boston University's Schools of Medicine and Public Health.
"While we know that viruses can be "disinfected" from surfaces and hands, disinfectants can be harmful to health if ingested or inhaled. The underlying principle of medicine is to do no harm, and we always measure benefit against risk when approving interventions. I don't know if this has been followed and assessed with respect to these devices," says Keusch. "It's a really bad idea."
Experts warn that such tunnels may also create a false sense of security, discouraging people from adopting best practice methods like handwashing, social distancing, avoiding crowded places, and using masks to combat the spread of COVID-19.
"They may make people feel that their risk of infection has been reduced, and also that they do not have to worry about infecting others," says Janes. "These are false assumptions, and may lead to increasing rather than reducing transmission."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”