Remember when, at a press conference, Trump turned to some doctors and asked the inelegant question of whether they could use “disinfectants” to treat COVID-19? “Disinfectant” was a poor word choice made by a non-medical expert, and the press did what it does best and over-interpreted that malapropism to claim that he was asking whether Clorox or Lysol could be injected to treat the disease. That was a rhetorical overreach on their part.
What if, instead of “disinfectant,” he used the word “antiseptic?” Antiseptics are biocidal chemicals that stop or slow the growth of microorganisms and are frequently used in hospitals and clinics to sterilize skin and mucous membranes to reduce the risk of infection during medical procedures. Disinfectants also are biocidal chemicals that kill and slow microorganism growth and also are often used in hospitals and clinics to sterilize surfaces and instruments to prevent the spread of pathogens. Many people use the terms interchangeably. For example, antiseptics used to sterilize skin before surgery and are sometimes called skin disinfectants.
But for the hairsplitters, medical professionals admit to a bit of difference between antiseptics and disinfectants. Generally, antiseptics are applied to the body, while disinfectants usually are applied to surfaces, such as countertops and handrails. However, a surface disinfectant, such as alcohol, is also often used as an antiseptic to sterilize skin. Your arm often is swabbed with alcohol before an injection, and alcohol is a common antiseptic ingredient in hand cleanser. Chlorhexidine is a disinfectant used to sterilize surgical instruments, but it also is used as an oral antiseptic. Hydrogen peroxide is another chemical that is used both as a disinfectant and antiseptic. Clearly, there is much similarity and overlap in the use of and terminology between antiseptic and disinfectant agents, which can collectively be called biocides.
Even if Trump had used the word “antiseptic” instead of his unpolished choice, “disinfectant,” one suspects that the press still would have chided him for suggesting that we inject Mercurochrome to treat COVID-19. However, he also might have been vindicated since an antiseptic and a surgical instrument disinfectant are now being tested at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for their ability to prevent CoV-2 virus infection.
The new study will test a common antiseptic, Povidone-iodine, for swabbing the nose, and the common instrument disinfectant, Chlorhexidine, for rinsing the mouth. The idea is that the agents will coat the nose and mouth and kill any virus that comes in contact with the biocidal agents, preventing the virus from gaining entry into mucosal cells from where they grow and spread throughout the body. The trial is now enrolling up to 500 participants. For a six week period, participants will swab their nose twice a day and rinse four times a day, after which they will be tested for CoV-2 infection and compared to a control group that did not “disinfect.” If effective, this regimen could be useful for protecting healthcare workers, teachers, nursing homes, and other people routinely in high contact with others. Researchers hope to announce their findings by early to mid-fall.
Words are important, but sometimes flubbed; that is excusable, especially when it is a non-expert who did the flubbing. What is less tolerable is jumping to unwarranted and extreme rhetorical conclusions about why a flubbed word was said. If one is honest, one must admit that Trump never suggested “injecting Clorox” to treat COVID-19. Now, it seems that Trump’s poor choice of the word “disinfectant” was not so crazy after all. One day, we all might be gargling with a surgical instrument disinfectant.
Bottom line: When setting up this blog last April, I said it would not be political, and it hasn’t been. What I wrote above is not about politics, it is about science and facts, both of which can transcend politics. Sometimes when a scientist makes statements based on facts and evidence that conflict with certain political positions, people assume that the scientist is being political. That is not necessarily true.
It is not true here.
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