A question regarding the coronavirus

Update: Do read the big “Caution” section too!

Regarding the coronavirus:

It’s well known by now that soap kills the corona-virus. The science of it has been explained at many places, e.g., a tweet here [^], and a news article here [^].

The operative words here are: the lipid bi-layer, and the absence of covalent bond.

If I get the mechanism right (and please do correct me if I am going wrong in any detail), the virus carries a protective membrane of lipid bi-layer on the outside. This membrane is not monolithic. It consists of many smaller fragments loosely held together (may be like what happens with van der Waal’s forces). When a coronavirus is surrounded by soapy water, the lipid particles from the soap compete with the lipid-fragments of the virus’ membrane. So, essentially, the loosely held pieces of the virus’ membrane get preferentially stuck with the lipid particles of the soap, and they remain more strongly stuck with the soap particles. Therefore, when the soap’s lipid particles move away (at the nano-level, may be like in the Brownian motion), the virus membrane falls apart. In short, the lipid particles in the soap literally tear apart the virus’ outer cover.

Now, lipids are basically fats. There are fats in many substances other than in soap, e.g., in vegetable oils like the coconut oil.

There seem to be a lot of naive articles on the Internet about the health benefits of the coconut oil. (“Alternative medicine” etc.) However, no hard or well established facts. The best I could get to was this news article: [^].

No, I am certainly not jumping to any conclusions. More important, I am not recommending anything to any one. Not right away, anyway.

All that I am doing is to ask this specific question: Are there any peer-reviewed and replicated results regarding destruction of the viruses belonging to the coronavirus family, by coconut oil?

Realize, I am not asking for reports on the health benefits/hazards of eating coconut oil.

What I am asking for are some in-vitro trials in which a certain viral load is mixed with some small quantity of coconut oil, and the growth or otherwise of the virus is observed over a passage of time.

If such trials are encouraging enough, then the implication is obvious. After washing your hands periodically, apply coconut oil. (This way, the skin wouldn’t turn too dry either.) Other possibilities exist. Apply a mild (non-irritating) oil like a somewhat diluted eucalyptus oil to your nose. Etc. Even a mild—but well-established—improvement would only be too welcome, given the potential magnitude of this global pandemic.

But, of course, first, there have to be well done trials following some strict protocol. I wanted to know if there have been any such in the past, for the other corona-viruses, and if some are being planned for the current one (covid-19).

I wrote this post just for this one purpose.

Addendum after publication:

I had noticed just one link to some Filipino study in my initial Google search (before writing this post). However, I didn’t put the link here when I wrote the post. The tone of that particular link was not very clear, and frankly, in pursuing many different links, I came to gloss over this study. I just kept the general sense that the coconut oil could be fitting.

Anyway, looks like they in The Philippines are seriously considering such trials. See a university research announcement here [^], and a news article about it, here [^].

…Initially, when I read Ash Joglekar’s tweet [^] some 8–10 days ago, I had begun wondering about the lipids in oils and spices. But I thought that people would sure be pursuing such ideas anyway, and so didn’t write anything about it. I was also busy with my data science trials, and so was mostly away from the ‘net (see the section below).

After waiting for a while, when I didn’t notice any one talking about oils (like the eucalyptus oil), I decided to do a search on this topic today. There were quite a few blog posts or write-up about using essential oils and all. Various google searches throw up links to them. But I think that those ideas are not on the target (and may in fact introduce skin irritation!).

But the Filipino study seems to be different. I would like to see how their trials are progressing. Benefits of ingesting (eating) coconut oil was also a new thing to me.

I also think that others (say Indian scientists) could easily take up the necessary in-vitro observations, regardless of how the clinical trials in The Philippines progress. In fact, they should. The study won’t be very expensive, I think.

Further addition:

Come to think of it, my suggestion might look ludicrous. “Coconut oil? stopping viruses? Hah! Coconut oil has been in use for thousands of years. Why didn’t it help in all those plagues of the past?”

Ummm… My point is simple. Today, we understand the roles that different measures have to play in public health systems. We do advise frequently washing hands with soap water. We do acknowledge that the lowly soap-water works better than the much more costly hand sanitizers. The mechanism for the effectiveness of soap is known. The knowledge naturally leads to searching for other materials that might perhaps offer a similar mechanism, and are otherwise safe and suitable for adoption.

Yes, using coconut oil does look like a nutty idea, on the face of it. But then, come to think of it, soap was available in 1918 too, when the Spanish flu struck. Should we therefore have refused testing soap-water against the coronavirus? …

… All that I am saying is what holds for the simple soap can perhaps also hold for other suitable materials, which are otherwise quite safe on us. Coconut is known to be one of the safest “material” there is. Also other fatty substances.

Here, Indians might perhaps think of घी i.e. “ghee”, the clarified butter. The clarified butter obtained from cow’s milk, when seasoned for several years (simply by letting sit on the shelf) is known to be an effective remedy. It can be applied directly even to open wounds, and it does help wounds, scars, scabs, etc. heal. When I was young, people in the villages would use it. I was told by the elders that in the olden days, soldiers relied on precisely such things. And, even after seasoning, it still remains safe enough to be ingested too.

If such materials can help, not as anti-viral agents at par with, say Remdesivir or so, but at least as mild but provably effective preventive measures, well and good. If not, keep them aside. (I have no hidden agenda whatsoever about it all, one way or the other.)

But we should at least be willing to test their efficacy, if any. At least in the in-vitro trials. I am not even suggesting the in-vivo trials. The medical community will have to take that call—provided the in-vitro trials do show something promising. But I do suggest the in-vitro trials. These could be done very fast, wouldn’t cost a lot, and perhaps may throw up something really valuable. That’s my point.

So, there.



This post is not at all meant for advising application of coconut oil! Understand this part well!

Oils are sticky. This can fact can make for a huge risk factor if the coconut oil / similar substances do not show any anti-viral activity. In fact, in such a case, begin sticky, they may perhaps make a bad situation worse by accumulating bacteria/viruses!

So, don’t make worse of an already bad situation. Don’t interpret this post as advising any practice. This post is meant only to suggest undertaking the kind of research that has been outlined. It is only if (and when) that the suggested research shows any promising results that further actions, such as developing the right kind of a protocol for usage, will have to be developed. That’s the job for the medical research community.

Research is not the same as a well established and safe technique

So, for now, in practice, stick with only the tried and true: Wash your hands with soap frequently, for at least 20 seconds at a time, as has been advised. Do not start applying the coconut oil/etc. on hands.

An aside:

These days, I am busy conducting trials for testing some of my data science-related ideas.

I have only one machine. It’s a CPU-only machine. (There is a GPU in it, but it’s Radeon. I couldn’t get TF to run on top of it). So, even for relatively smaller tasks, the trials go on for very long times (2–5 hours is common, sometimes even more).

When a trial is in progress, all the 8 virtual cores are boosted to 100% load. So, it’s not possible to do anything else, such as blogging or checking emails. (FireFox in fact sometimes crashes the machine, and I don’t want to lose data or compromise the integrity of the trials.) That’s why, these days, I am mostly not available on the Internet.

These trials should go on for quite some time (at least a couple of weeks if not more). Therefore, my blogging and Internet presence is going to be minimal. Just to let you know.

I deliberately took an interruption today, just to write this post, because of its obvious topical importance.

A song I like:

(Western, pop) “Looking alive”
Singer: Madison Cunningham

[I happened to listen to the “Live from here” version first [^]. I like it better than the “Warehouse” version [^].

Anyway, see if you enjoy the song, take care, and by for now…may be for days or a couple of weeks or so—I have my data science trials to run.]

— First published: 2020.03.15 16:36 IST
— Added the “addendum” section: 2020.03.15 18:41 IST
— Added the songs section: 2020.03.16 14:17 IST
— Added the “Further addition” section: 2020.03.16 19:28 IST
— Added the “Caution” section: 2020.03.16 21:31 IST