Tue, 06 Dec 2022

Global warming is advancing, and the permafrost is thawing across the world. In turn, this means that bacteria and viruses trapped in it for millions of years may come to life soon - while thousands of people are still dying from the Covid-19, and the number of monkeypox infections is rising. What does the future hold for us and our children? And is it possible to protect humanity from new and potentially deadly infections?

Scientists warned of the dangers of new viruses even before the Covid-19 pandemic. There are actual examples of frozen and thawed infections: back in 2017, the scientific community recalled an outbreak of anthrax after cattle burials from a century ago thawed in Arctic regions of Russia. It's not just this disease we have to worry about. If we rewind the history back, we can assume that the permafrost may hide pathogens that infected not only our ancestors but non-homo-sapiens human subspecies as well.

This possibility is real. The permafrost has all the conditions for the preservation of those microorganisms that can pause their metabolism: there is no oxygen, the temperature is below zero, and the pH factor is neutral. For one, there are smallpox and bubonic plague, defeated by science now, but still dangerous, nevertheless. We see it coming now with the monkeypox: although the virus has been known for many years, we have no treatment for it right now, and the scale of the danger has not been fully assessed yet.

The danger of new diseases is not simply due to the emergence of new viruses. Part of the problem lies in the humanity's very attitude toward such threats. We may receive thousands of warnings about potential dangers, but the stable door will likely stay open until the horse escapes. "There's a lot of panic in outbreak situations, but we very rapidly forget," Catharina Boehme, Chef de Cabinet of the World Health Organisation, commented on outbreaks of the Covid-19 earlier. "There has been very little investment in preparedness, and all the investment flows to response."

The pandemic showed that it is hardly reasonable to turn a blind eye to the problem of new diseases and hope that they will go away on their own. Apart from the ancient pathogens, outbreaks of endemic diseases such as monkeypox and Lassa fever are becoming more persistent and frequent, warns the World Health Organization's emergency director Mike Ryan. So, is there anything we can do to prevent a new catastrophe?

According to a recent study conducted by McKinsey & Company, two-thirds of the respondents still perceive the Covid-19 pandemic as a major concern in their everyday lives. But a solution is out there, and the words of Dr. Boehme name it openly. Preparedness and prevention are the keys with which we can lock the door on new outbreaks; if not completely eliminate the threat, then at least reduce it significantly.

Moreover, we have every opportunity to do so right now: the Covid-19 literally pushed up new answers to the prevention problem - and these are not only masks, hand sanitizers and vaccines, implementation of which requires great efforts. New-generation antipathogenic solutions can protect us not only from future infections but also from existing ones, while leaving our lives the same as before - let's look at a few examples of exactly how this can be done.

Safety around

Infections use different ways to enter the human body. Some pathogens cannot survive outside and require close contact between a carrier and a healthy person. Experience shows, however, that the most devastating consequences come from those viruses and bacteria that are airborne. Not only they flow in the air, but settle and live on surfaces, literally encircling us.

Disinfection of surfaces has long been practiced in health facilities. However, as soon as we walk out a hospital door, we find ourselves in a world full of pathogens. But what if we widen the scope of disinfection and move this practice further, to doorknobs, room walls, tables, and other surfaces that surround us in everyday life?

Modern technology makes it possible. They promise not a completely sterile environment, but rather effective assistants in the fight against pathogens. Perhaps the best part here that these solutions require no extra effort: there are a thousand more important things to do instead of endless cleaning. Sanitizing on and on is like herding cats: we simply cannot disinfect public transport handrails after every touch or wash decorative surfaces thoroughly enough. What can be done, however, is to suppress the growth of viruses and bacteria and significantly reduce their lifespan on such surfaces.

Tools used to do this are similar to those used in hospitals, the only difference being that they have been adapted to be integrated into daily life. You can find them in the most unexpected places: for example, Bioguard™ technology, developed about fifteen years ago by the French security printer Oberthur Fiduciaire, is used practically anywhere, be it packaging, touchscreens, furniture, rails and seats in public transport, as a coating or special additive in the manufacture of objects.

Initially, the company developed Bioguard far before the H5N1 [bird flu] crisis: Oberthur's experts created a treatment to make the surface of banknotes 'hostile' to bacteria, viruses, and other microscopic fungi - without having any harmful influence on humans and environment.

When the pandemic hit, an independent lab put Bioguard to test and was surprised to discover that it was particularly efficient against coronaviruses. Nowadays, the manufacturer continues R&D to make sure Bioguard stays effective even against new viruses and keeps looking for new applications to protect all kinds of surfaces. Thanks to this, even walls can have antipathogenic properties now: not long ago Bioguard & Co and wallpaper manufacturer Ugépa signed a partnership to produce wallpaper with antiviral and antibacterial properties confirmed by laboratory tests.

The manufacturer does not claim that the product kills all pathogens completely, but it reduces the viral concentration by at least 100 times compared to untreated surfaces, which significantly reduces the risk of infection - already existing or those that are yet to come.

In more private areas, such as the home, you can use even more hospital-like solutions, such as an ultraviolet lamp. Blue light is not safe for people, and until recently its use was limited to medical institutions. Now it is available for daily use as well: for example, a lamp designed by Italian lighting brand Artemide turns into a room sanitizer when no living being is around. As in many smart home systems, the technology is controlled by a mobile application in which the user selects settings for different rooms. Unlike Bioguard, these lamps cannot be retrofitted, and their proximity to surfaces must be considered, but they can still provide the necessary protection if properly installed and set up.

Pathogen-free stationary surfaces are not a bad idea, but viruses and bacteria can stick to moving objects, too. There is a reason why medics working with the Covid-19 patients wear spacesuit-like gear: to prevent the virus from getting onto the skin and, consequently, into the respiratory tract. This level of protection is hardly applicable in daily life - which, however, doesn't cancel viruses and bacteria clinging onto our clothing.

Manufacturers spotted this danger at the beginning of the pandemic: for instance, Under Armour, Diesel, and several others were seen developing anti-pathogenic wear. The effectiveness of such clothing is still questioned, with regards to the durability of such protection. Indeed, fabrics do shed fibers when washed, and all marketing assurances should be taken with a grain of salt. However, if we look at it from a practical point of view, such clothes can still be useful in spheres like hospitality, where employees have to communicate with a lot of people and cannot change immediately after talking to a coughing person.

Antipathogenic fabrics would come in handy for such professions, as well as for those who want to increase their level of protection in daily life. They can be used anytime and safely: for example, Viroformula™ fabrics from the Italian Albini Group use silver-based and fatty-vesicles technologies to inhibit growth and prevent the spreading of viruses and bacteria.

Just like Bioguard, and all other solutions that imply direct contact with the skin, these fabrics are safe for humans and do not cause irritation. There is a certain disadvantage with regards to a limited number of washings (up to 30 washes), but for this, scientists recommend choosing fabrics dense enough to ensure that the virus cannot penetrate through the fabric to the skin anyway.

All in all, we see that the risk of a new pandemic still persists. In addition to the threat of new viruses thawing out, there are infections that surround us already now. Given the speed of mutation and adaptation of pathogens, we can hardly hope for a new strike to happen in a few hundred years. Rather, the count goes on for years: scientists have found that the probability of experiencing a new pandemic in one's lifetime is currently about 38% and is bound to increase.

Given these conditions, prevention and protection measures are becoming not just optional, but critical. Luckily, we are already well-positioned to make our environment safer, and there is no need to radically change our lifestyle. All we have to do is just to make a bit more effort to integrate already existing solutions into our daily routine and keep enjoying our life.

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