By Mark Palmer
Whether in China, Hong Kong or Japan, they’ve become a familiar sight: men with giant cylinders on their backs spraying everything in sight.
Lampposts, train carriages, classrooms, railings, restaurants, bars, shops, airports, entrances to hospitals, schools, government buildings - they are all targets. And it seems to have paid off in the fight to tame Covid-19. Or, at least, it’s played a vital role in curbing the spread of the virus and helping to unlock those countries from their respective coronavirus shutdowns.
But what exactly are they spraying? And why, if it’s so effective, aren’t we doing something similar here?
The answer to the first question is rather more straightforward than finding an explanation for the second one. What’s being sprayed is hypochlorous acid - known more widely as HOCl. It’s 100 times more effective as a disinfectant than bleach, killing germs and viruses instantly. Yet it’s free of potentially harmful additives, non-toxic, cheap to produce, easy to use and completely safe for humans.
Whereas industrial and domestic bleaches are made with chemicals which have the potential to cause harm, particularly to the skin, eyes and lungs, and damage the materials to which they are applied, such as clothes, some people use HOCL as a mouth wash and it’s even been deployed to cleanse infections on human skin.
In South Korea, it’s proved such an effective weapon against Covid that a growing number of scientists, doctors and health care experts want to know why it is not being used in this country more widely.
Indeed, it took until this week for the Government to give the green light to official trials in Britain.
One suggestion is that when British theatres eventually open on August 1, audience members could be sprayed with the disinfectant by walking through metal detector-style arches on their way into venues.
‘We should have used HOCl from the very start. It would have made a huge difference - but it’s still not too late,’ said Dr. Darren Reynolds, professor in Health and Environment at the University of the West of England, in Bristol.
Last week, it was reported that President Vladimir Putin has been protected from coronavirus by ‘disinfection tunnels’ that anyone visiting his residence outside Moscow must pass through. Two of the tunnels, which shower users in a ‘disinfecting aerosol’, have been installed at the Kremlin, and another at Putin’s presidential residence near Moscow, according to a Russian spokesman. It is not clear what the ‘disinfecting aerosol’ is made up of but it’s highly likely to be HOCl because it causes no harm to skin or eyes and is safe to ingest.
Dr. Joe Selkon, an eminent consultant microbiologist at the Oxford University John Radcliffe Hospital, who died in 2013, described it as ‘the gold standard by which all antiviral, antibacterial agents must now be compared.’
It was in early March that HOCl was confirmed as being instrumental in containing the spread of COVID-19 in South Korea, when CNN reported that at the end of their shifts, front-line workers at drive-through corona testing stations were ‘stepping fully clothed into a small portable booth called the “Clean Zone,” in which they were showered in hypochlorous acid disinfectant.’
This practice is known as ‘fogging’ or ‘misting’ and is something the HOCl Trust - a charity set up in 2016 to inform and educate about the benefits of hypochlorous acid - believes could play a huge role in avoiding a second spike of the disease. Yet many people will never have heard of HOCl, never mind know what it does, even though the World Health Organization clearly states that frontline staff should be using hypochlorous acid as a part of their ‘critical commodity-listed PPE for Covid-19, along with goggles, visors, alcohol-based hand rub, scrubs and heavy aprons’.
Dr. Hugh Martin, who until last year was Head of Science at the Royal Agriculture University in Cirencester and is now an independent consultant, told the Mail: ‘HOCl has remarkable qualities and I would like to see it used far more widely as part of our PPE armoury. It could help enormously with the re-use of PPE, such as visors and scrubs.’
HOCl is a weak acid that occurs naturally in our immune system. White blood cells are the first to arrive on site when a pathogen - invading germ - is detected. They chase down and engulf the germ through a process called ‘phagocytosis’. Upon contact, the white blood cells release a burst of bacteria-killing chemicals, including their most powerful oxidising agent – which is HOCl. This kills the pathogen by destroying cell membranes and proteins.
There are two primary ways of making HOCl outside the body. First, through electrolysis, where an electric current is passed through a saline solution and produces HOCl. The second – both easier and cheaper - is to make HOCl by a readily available man-made chemical compound called sodium dichloroisocyanurate (NaDCC), the main ingredient of chlorination tablets, which simply need to be dissolved in water.
‘We fog our dental practice at regular intervals during the day and I can’t understand why it is not more widely used,’ said James McDonald, a partner at Dutch Barton Dental, in Bradford-on-Avon, Somerset.
The hand-held fogging machine Mr. McDonald’s practice deploys looks like a leaf blower, but fogging tunnels similar to those used by Putin have also been common-place in the East. They look like airport scanners but have a pressure pad on the floor that triggers a fine mist of HOCl as people walk through.
A company called Trimite distributes these tunnels in the UK under the name of ShieldMe, which are made by a company called Naffco in Dubai, where they are seen at bus-stops, train stations, in airports and in the foyers of cinemas and foyers. ‘We are currently in discussions with some premiership rugby and football clubs - and we think our three man tunnels are the solution for bringing spectators back into stadiums,’ said David Roberts, chairman of Trimite. ‘There will be some queuing but it will take no longer to walk through a fogging tunnel than it will to go through a turnstyle where you have to show your ticket.’
Mr. Roberts has tried approaching the NHS about the possibility of installing fogging tunnels at the entrance to hospitals but without success. ‘I could pull my hair out dealing with the NHS. They have got to get some commercial people in who understand a supply chain,’ he said.
Dr. Reynolds told the Mail that he got as far as making contact with the relevant office at the Department of Health. He told government officials that HOCl could be made cheaply and in vast quantities, but it came to nothing. ‘I got a call back and was told that it would be discussed - but that was it. There seems to be an inherent resistance to new ideas of this kind. Our inability to respond quickly to innovation is deeply frustrating,’ he said.
Certainly, this has been the experience of the founder of the HOCl Trust, Charles Cocking, 75, a retired mechanical engineer from South Devon. He has spent the best part of 30 years trying to make people aware of HOCl’s potential. ‘It is the answer to so many of the world’s ills, providing sanitation and potable water in shanty towns and disaster areas - and acting as the best and most effective decontamination agent,’ said Mr Cocking, who is recovering from a stroke, and suffers from the after-effects of having had throat cancer. ‘I have been feeding through a tube directly into my stomach, and I need to clean the feedline really carefully, so I use HOCl. And my daughter has used it to help with her gum disease.’
Sanitising tunnels are being installed by Oakland International, a food storage and distribution company, at its Corby factory. ‘Everyone goes through the tunnel on the way into work and there is an option to use it on the way out, too,’ said Dean Attwell, Oakland’s CEO. ‘It’s like stepping into a very fine mist and is completely safe. You hardly notice it. We paid around £6,000 for it but it’s money well-spent.’
Mr Cocking’s daughter, Tania Wedin, who is a trustee of the charity, last week finally succeeded in getting the attention of NHS England’s PPE-Reuse team but was told that ‘further testing will be required to positively prove the efficacy of the fogging process specifically against gowns, masks and eyewear, particularly at the scale of decontamination that we are interested in.’
Meanwhile, the NHS improvement team acknowledges it is a ‘promising concept’ and are looking at it as a potential ‘innovative solution’ that could ‘support more sustainable PPE use in the future.’ But Miss Wedin is not holding her breath. ‘The NHS now has a duty to have the necessary testing done and routinely use HOCl,’ she said. ‘Then, should a second wave be apparent, or a future pandemic, HOCl will be immediately available for frontline keyworkers to protect themselves, saving the NHS money, and, more importantly, reducing the high cost in lives.’
There appears to be two reasons why HOCl has never been properly exploited in the UK. First, there remains a perception that it has a limited shelf life and, second, because it’s a ‘traditional chemical’ so it cannot be patented - and therefore is of little commercial interest to the big pharmaceutical companies. A ‘traditional chemical’ is one that already exists in nature, such as oxygen.
There’s no great mystery about its application, especially for domestic use. You simply spray HOCl, which appears like water, on your hands, clothes, or surfaces. It is not flammable like alcohol, making it safe to transport, even on planes, and provided it is stored in a sealed container in the dark it will retain its potency over a number of months.
HOCl is being used at Somerset House, the arts centre, in central London.
‘We did a lot of bacterial trials and testing before going ahead but it’s working extremely well,’ said Greg van Duin, head of facilities Management at Somerset House Trust.
Relying solely on public donations, the HOCl Trust is sending NaDCC tablets to frontline keyworkers in care homes, volunteer groups and surgeries that register with them but, more generally, NHS staff are not allowed to use NaDCC tablets because they are not 70% alcohol-based, and it is not a product they have been trained to use.
‘It is at least listed as an available chemical on the dedicated Covid-19 PPE supply channel, but not in its purest form, and it’s only being used as a “general purpose detergent” by cleaning contractors,’ said Mr Cocking. ‘It’s deeply disappointing. I really want to do some good for the world in the time that I have left and hope that eventually this will be my legacy.’
Abridged version published in Daily Mail 25th July 2020