The end of “hygiene theater”
You can put away the disinfectant and stop wiping down your groceries.
This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines on the dangers of coronavirus infection from touching a doorknob, a subway pole, or other surface. The risk is extremely low.
The announcement was an about-face from the early days of the pandemic when the C.D.C. warned that the virus could survive on surfaces for days, and potentially infect people who touched a contaminated surface and then touched their faces.
That early guidance ushered in an era of what The Atlantic described as “hygiene theater,” in which Americans obsessively scrubbed their homes, quarantined packages, and ransacked drugstores for Clorox wipes. Companies and schools closed regularly for deep cleanings, and New York City subway cars were disinfected every night.
We now know those elaborate steps did not provide much — if any — protection from the virus.
“There’s really no evidence that anyone has ever gotten Covid-19 by touching a contaminated surface,” said an expert on airborne viruses.
In the early days of the pandemic, many experts believed the virus was spread primarily though large respiratory droplets that could theoretically fall onto surfaces, and then be picked up by touch and then passed to mucous membranes in the nose and the eyes. But we’ve learned over the past year that the virus spreads almost entirely through the air.
Experts now say that while it’s theoretically possible to catch the virus from a surface, it requires something of a perfect storm: lots of recently deposited virus particles on a surface that are then quickly transferred to someone’s hand, and then to the face. The updated guidelines from the C.D.C. say that chemical disinfectants are not needed to keep surface transmission low — just hand-washing, mask wearing and, in most cases, cleaning surfaces with regular soap and water.
Joseph Allen, a building safety expert at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that for organizations like schools, businesses and other institutions, the new guidance “should be the end of deep cleaning.”
“It has led to closed playgrounds, it has led to taking nets off basketball courts, it has led to quarantining books in the library,” he said. “This frees up a lot of organizations to spend that money better.” (Although we wouldn’t mind if New York City subway cars continue to get a regular deep scrub.)
Messenger RNA (mRNA) technology is the bedrock of the vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. It’s the genetic script that carries instructions to the protein-making machinery of cells.
For its newly prominent role protecting the world from the coronavirus pandemic, we can thank Katalin Kariko, a Hungarian-born scientist, and her close collaborator, Dr. Drew Weissman.
Dr. Kariko, 66, has focused on mRNA for her entire career. She was convinced it could be used to instruct cells to make their own medicines, including vaccines.
For decades, she clung to the fringes of academia in the United States, struggling to find a permanent position and never making more than $60,000 a year. Her unorthodox ideas seemed wild and fanciful to her peers, and she struggled to get grants.
After her research stalled — she could make mRNA work in a petri dish, but not in living mice — Dr. Kariko found a clue in an experiment’s control group. A single molecule called pseudouridine helped evade the immune response and deliver the protein-instruction payload.
Eventually, companies like Moderna and BioNTech took notice of Dr. Kariko and Dr. Weissman’s research. And when Chinese scientists posted the genetic sequence of the coronavirus in January 2020, they were ready. BioNTech designed its mRNA vaccine in hours; Moderna took two days.
Last November, when the first stunning results from the mRNA coronavirus vaccines came in, Dr. Kariko turned to her husband. “Oh, it works,” she said. “I thought so.”
To celebrate, our colleague Gina Kolata reports, Dr. Kariko ate an entire box of Goobers chocolate-covered peanuts. By herself.
U.S. Defense Department officials said that military vaccinations have slowed, citing a spoiled batch of 15 million Johnson & Johnson doses. Last year, a top official warned of problems at the Baltimore plant where the error occurred.
Puerto Rico will expand vaccine eligibility for residents 16 or older on Monday.
Florida will soon start vaccinating state prisoners, WUSF reports.
Bhutan said it gave at least one dose of a vaccine to 60 percent of its population of 770,000 in nine days, Al Jazeera reports.
In the E.U., the European Court of Human Rights has said that member countries can require child vaccinations for the coronavirus and other diseases.
What else we’re following
What you’re doing
As a physician intimately involved with the airway, I have now become used to wearing an N95 and additional surgical mask all day long, with eye shield. It’s only a little easier than it was a year ago. But the fatigue of universal precautions is draining. So whenever I hear “thank you for your work,” I hear only empty platitudes. I want to scream back “wear your [expletive] mask if you want to actively thank me!”
— Norris Lee, Maine
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