A little lecture that might be helpful in these pandemic times. (Sorry about the lack of pictures – had a problem with the technology (surprise! not.)


A bacterium is a single-celled organism, first seen through an early microscope in the 17th century. Viruses were first proven to exist in the 1920s, but were only seen with development of powerful electron microscopes in the 1970s. Viruses are not cells, but complex molecules that include some genetic material which only becomes active when the virus comes in contact with a cell that it can infect: viruses are pure parasites. Some attack bacteria, multiplying in the cell until it bursts, releasing hundreds of virus particles to infect other bacteria. Viruses work in a similar manner to this when they get into the cells in our bodies.

Bacteria are pretty much everywhere on our planet, but the ones we encounter most are on and in our bodies, where we depend upon a good relationship with them for our health and well-being. This is because the right bacteria in the right place strengthen our immune systems and are essential for digestion. Bacteria also occur in millions on our skin, even when fresh out of the shower or bath: which types of bacteria are there depends on what happens to be around at the time. Anyone may have pathogenic bacteria such as streptococci, staphylococci, clostridium, even MRSA on their skin as well as relatively benign ones, but this is normal and they do no harm unless….

If a bacterium gets into the wrong place (such as the blood stream or our lungs), or the equilibrium is upset (e.g. food poisoning) an infection can ensue, and unless treated, such an infection can kill you: people used to die of shaving cuts before antibiotics. To avoid this, good hygiene is essential, but our kitchens and bathrooms are never going to be like an operating theatre or clean laboratory unless we get specialists in to carry out a deep clean. And completely sterile conditions are not conducive to a healthy life as we are animals who evolved as part of nature, bound into the complex web of life, including bacteria. The effect of the extensive use of antiseptic cleaners, sprays, wipes and other strong cleaning products in the home on a family’s health is far from understood. Also, an antiseptic may kill 99% of germs, but that remaining1% goes on to reproduce without competition, producing a resistant strain such as MRSA.

So that’s bacteria: we need them, live with them and can’t avoid them. But what about viruses?

Firstly, a virus is complex molecule and not an organism. Viruses are also everywhere, but only become active when they attach to a host cell. The most important thing is that viruses are pure parasites: they only exist to reproduce and need an host organism, which can be a bacterium or an earthworm or a human. Viruses normally stick to one species, but in the case of COVID-19, the virus seems to have ‘jumped’ to humans, which makes it particularly dangerous. It has been able to spread across the World and kill people because it has never been experienced by our species before – it is not a part of our natural habitat so we have no resistance.

Antiseptics, antibiotics and most cleaning materials have no effect whatsoever on viruses, so wiping everything with antiseptic wet-wipes just gathers some of them up, whereas a good washing with soap and water will be more effective. This goes for our bodies and hands as well as external surfaces. 

The most common way that people contract a virus infection, such as a cold, flue or COVID-19, is by breathing the virus in. This happens if someone nearby is infected and particularly if they are coughing or sneezing. However, in the case of COVID-19, the main symptoms (fever & dry chesty cough) only start after the virus has been in our bodies for over a week. So to reduce the chance of catching COVID-19 from other people, follow the Government advice, although it should be said that many respected medical practitioners advocate keeping completely clear of other people until the infection is under some control.

If we decided, as a country, to just let the pandemic take its course and continue as normal as far as possible, then the virus would rapidly infect the majority of the population. This would kill a large number of people: many thousands of elderly and vulnerable people would succumb to it, the NHS couldn’t cope and many would die alone: too horrible an outcome to contemplate, but one that would get us over the pandemic more rapidly.

So we are going to have to keep ourselves to ourselves and wash our hands a lot. But we may be better spending our money on other things than wipes and antiseptic sprays.

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