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How Soap Kills Corona

By Shlomo Maital

       Political leaders, public health officials, doctors, talk show hosts, even Donald J. Trump, they all exhort us to wash our hands. Masks, distance, hygiene.

       But those of us who are curious may wonder: If the novel coronavirus is able to survive inside our hostile bodies, even when the immune system tosses fragmentation grenades at it, and T-cells and antibodies and who knows what —   why does soap kill virus? Simple soap? Really?

         I follow cable news closely, but have not heard anybody, including doctors, explain why soap kills virus. This is just a tiny symptom of the truly awful manner in which we the public are given information, or in fact, NOT given it. We are told what to do, endlessly – but we are not told clearly, carefully, exactly why, based on science. I guess the assumption is, the public is dumb, dumber, dumbest. And that’s just not true.

           So here, from a back-page article in the New York Times, printed in March, is the explanation. It is by Ferris Jabr, March 13, 2020.:

“People typically think of soap as gentle and soothing, but from the perspective of microorganisms, it is often extremely destructive. A drop of ordinary soap diluted in water is sufficient to rupture and kill many types of bacteria and viruses, including the new coronavirus that is currently circling the globe. The secret to soap’s impressive might is its hybrid structure.   Soap is made of pin-shaped molecules, each of which has a hydrophilic head — it readily bonds with water — and a hydrophobic tail, which shuns water and prefers to link up with oils and fats. These molecules, when suspended in water, alternately float about as solitary units, interact with other molecules in the solution and assemble themselves into little bubbles called micelles, with heads pointing outward and tails tucked inside.  

   “Some bacteria and viruses have lipid membranes that resemble double-layered micelles with two bands of hydrophobic tails sandwiched between two rings of hydrophilic heads. These membranes are studded with important proteins that allow viruses to infect cells and perform vital tasks that keep bacteria alive. Pathogens wrapped in lipid membranes include coronaviruses, H.I.V., the viruses that cause hepatitis B and C, herpes, Ebola, Zika, dengue, and numerous bacteria that attack the intestines and respiratory tract. When you wash your hands with soap and water, you surround any microorganisms on your skin with soap molecules. The hydrophobic tails of the free-floating soap molecules attempt to evade water; in the process, they wedge themselves into the lipid envelopes of certain microbes and viruses, prying them apart.

   “ “They act like crowbars and destabilize the whole system,” said Prof. Pall Thordarson, acting head of chemistry at the University of New South Wales. Essential proteins spill from the ruptured membranes into the surrounding water, killing the bacteria and rendering the viruses useless.”

Mankind has used soap for 4,000 years.   Now we know why it works. If only we could find a therapeutic drug that works as well INSIDE our bodies, as soap does on our hands.


An Antibody “Cocktail” for COVID-19: Bottoms Up!

By Shlomo Maital

             In medical research, sometimes old tried-and-true ideas become new.

             In HIV AIDS research, researchers tried to find an antibody that would defeat the virus, if injected or consumed by patients. It didn’t work. The virus always found a way. The solution? Cocktails – combinations of antibodies, which taken together the virus could not defeat. And to this day, those who are HIV positive do quite well, relatively, when they regularly take the new ‘cocktail’. One of those drugs is called “Retrovir”. David Ho is generally regarded as the HIV cocktail pioneer, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

           A similar approach proved effective with the Ebola virus. Late last year it was reported that: “ …a team of scientists demonstrated that a two-antibody cocktail called MBP134 could fully protect nonhuman primates and ferrets against lethal Ebola virus infections.”

           Now comes a biotech company called Regeneron, which has embraced the same principle. According to CNN and Peter Sullivan, writing for

   Regeneron is testing a cocktail of two antibodies to both treat and prevent the coronavirus, developed using people who have recovered from COVID-19 as well as genetically modified mice.   The company did not give a firm timeline for its work, but these antibody cocktails could be ready sooner than a vaccine.   A competitor company also working on the idea, Eli Lilly, said its antibody treatment could be as ready as early as September; it started trials earlier this month.  

“We have created a unique anti-viral antibody cocktail with the potential both to prevent and treat infection,” Dr. George Yancopoulos, chief scientific officer of Regeneron, said in a statement.   The antibody cocktail “could have a major impact on public health by slowing spread of the virus and providing a needed treatment for those already sick — and could be available much sooner than a vaccine.”

    We learned from treating HIV AIDS that a two-pronged approach is needed: Develop anti-viral drugs, while you develop anti-viral vaccines.  To this day no vaccine for HIV has been found.

      This is happening with COVID-19 as well. Drugs and vaccines.  Meanwhile, a vast army of hard-working scientists all over the world are collaborating, sharing results, and working day and night, to defeat this wily virus.

    They give us reason for much hope.

Life as Math: Break Your Problem Into Pieces
By   Shlomo Maital

   How do you solve real-world problems? Hard ones?   Not, say, partial differential equations…. But life problems, relationships, dilemmas, work, career, kids.

   Let’s turn to a new and wonderful book by Cornell University mathematician Steven Strogatz *.   His book is about calculus. Remember your college course Calculus 101? One you may have struggled with? Can you believe calculus can solve real-world problems, not just math problems?

     Start with differential calculus and derivatives. This technique takes a hard problem and breaks it down into very very small pieces. Try the same with life. Problem? Insoluble? Break it down. Take it apart. Use the method of seven why’s… why?, response, why?, response, until you get down to the infinitely small level..and the core of the problem.

     Next take integral calculus. Start small and build it up. Build the big picture. Take your seven why’s…   zoom out, then put the pieces together and ‘integrate’….add it all up.

        Strogatz shows how a geneticist combined with a mathematical expert to crack the HIV    problem. Drugs were developed to combat HIV and keep it from becoming AIDS. But there was a dilemma. Using the drugs prematurely might cause the body to develop immunity and endanger the patient. The mathematician plotted the curve of HIV virus in the body, over time, and how the body destroyed the virus…. And came up with the strategy, eventually, of the HIV cocktail – the combination of three drugs that has proved so effective and life-saving. This was done, using calculus, plotting the computing the curve of HIV virus ‘kills’ by the body’s immune system over time.

     Bottom line — tackle problems like a calculus expert. Break them down. Take a small piece. Work on it.   Understand the whole problem by understanding a small part of it.

* Steven Strogatz. Infinite Powers: How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe. 384 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2019.


Tzameret Fuerst: Pass It Forward!

By Shlomo Maital

Tzameret Fuerst    PrePex

            Tzameret Fuerst                               PrePex

   Tzameret Fuerst is a highly-popular Israeli inspirational speaker, who travels the world telling her story.   Here it is, in short.

     She read about how HIV/AIDS is killing millions in Africa. In Botswana, one in every four persons has HIV.   Unlike the rest of us, she decided to act. She read about WHO research showing that circumcision greatly reduces exposure to HIV, by 70%, because removing the foreskin takes away the HIV virus’ favorite place to hide and invade (foreskin cells are sensitive, prone to abrasions and cuts, easy for the virus to invade). But so what? There is no way we can circumcise millions of African men.

     Well – why not?   Fast forward. Fuerst started Circ MedTech and tackled the problem with passion, and her company developed PrePex. PrePex is a device placed on the penis, that cuts off blood circulation to the foreskin; within a week it drops off. Simple. It has four parts: A placement ring; an elastic ring; an inner ring, and a verification thread. A nurse can install it; no need for surgery or a doctor. It has FDA approval and today, the Gates Foundation, WHO and the World Bank plan to get the device to 20 million men, saving 3.4 million lives and some $16.5 billion.  

     A crucial milestone came when Fuerst, stalled in her efforts to disseminate PrePex, got on a plane and flew to a conference she knew was attended by Bill Gates. She approached him, said “ May I have a few moments of your time, outside?”. Gates agreed. She persuaded him to cut the red tape and help move PrePex forward.

     There is a very personal angle. Fuerst divorced her husband, who was Chair of her company. She felt that as CEO she could not continue, as a result. So she resigned, for the good of the company and its device. She now travels the world, gave a TED talk, and tells her story to inspire others.

     How many of us can say that our energy, persistence, empathy and creativity have saved millions of lives?   Thanks, Tzameret. Your name, in Hebrew, means “summit” or “top”. And you are.


Do human beings still evolve?

By Shlomo Maital


   Pick up a 2-week-old copy of TIME magazine, and it’s worse than stale, like week-old fish. Pick up a 4-year-old copy of Scientific American, as I did recently, and it’s still fresh as a daisy. In the October 2010 issue, Jonathan Pritchard writes about human evolution. The question is, are humans still evolving, through survival of the fittest, as plants and animals are? The answer is: Yes, but very very slowly.

   Pritchard cites a gene that exists in Tibetans, that took 3,000 years to entrench itself. This gene adjusts red blood cell production and helps Tibetans survive and thrive in the low oxygen levels of the Tibetan plateau. But this seems to be an example that disproves the rule. “The classic natural selection scenario in which a single beneficial mutation spreads like wildfire through a population has occurred relatively rarely in humans in the past 60,000 years.”

     Want to believe, for instance, that gene implants can give you NBA-tall babies? Studies show that there are over 50 different genes that influence human height. Even if tall people procreated more than short ones, natural selection would take a long time to muster all those genes and spread them.

   The bad news? Viruses, like HIV, evolve far far faster than humans do. We stand no chance of having natural selection evolve HIV-immune humans, before the HIV virus itself evolves to counteract such resistance. Vaccines are the only hope.

     The good news?   There is also ‘social selection’, the competition for survival among different prototypes of social organization. We have America, with its dysfunctional Republican-vs.-Democrat paralyzed government. We have Europe, with its dysfunctional can’t-agree-on-anything ‘unity’; we have Russia, with its corrupt oligarchic dictatorship and a newly born Cold War relic at its head.   And so on… They are all in competition. So, out of all this vast variety of dysfunctional social and political systems, one of them will evolve to endure and prevail, and lead the other systems to imitate it?

     Won’t it???

Curing AIDS in New-born Infants: Breakthrough!

By Shlomo  Maital     

           baby AIDS

    Few things are more tragic, and more unfair, than new-born infants born with AIDS, acquired from their mothers.   I was stunned to learn that every year, 250,000 babies worldwide are born infected with the AIDS virus! 

   It is tough enough for many babies to make their way in the world, without the lifelong struggle with AIDS, starting at birth. 

   But a creative doctor may have found the answer.

   According to a report in the New York Times,  *    “When scientists made the stunning announcement last year that a baby born with H.I.V. had apparently been cured through aggressive drug treatment just 30 hours after birth, there was immediate skepticism that the child had been infected in the first place.   But on Wednesday, the existence of a second such baby was revealed at an AIDS conference here, leaving little doubt that the treatment works. A leading researcher said there might be five more such cases in Canada and three in South Africa.  And a clinical trial in which up to 60 babies who are born infected will be put on drugs within 48 hours is set to begin soon, another researcher added.  If that trial works — and it will take several years of following the babies to determine whether it has — the protocol for treating all 250,000 babies born infected each year worldwide will no doubt be rewritten.  “This could lead to major changes, for two reasons,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, executive director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “Both for the welfare of the child, and because it is a huge proof of concept that you can cure someone if you can treat them early enough.”   

    Let’s applaud Dr. Audra Deveikis.  Here is how she made the breakthrough discovery:   “ A baby girl born at Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach, Calif., is now 9 months old and apparently free of the virus that causes AIDS. Her mother, who has advanced AIDS and is mentally ill, arrived in labor; she had been prescribed drugs to protect her baby but had not taken them.   Four hours after the birth, a pediatrician, Dr. Audra Deveikis, drew blood for an H.I.V. test and immediately started the baby on three drugs — AZT, 3TC and nevirapine — at the high doses usually used for treatment of the virus.    The normal preventive regimen for newborns would be lower doses of two drugs; doctors usually do not use the more aggressive treatment until they are sure the baby is infected, and then sometimes not in the first weeks.   “Of course I had worries,” Dr. Deveikis said in an interview here. “But the mother’s disease was not under control, and I had to weigh the risk of transmission against the toxicity of the meds.”   “I’d heard of the Mississippi baby, I’d watched the video,” she added. “I knew that if you want to prevent infection, early treatment is critical.”   The Long Beach baby is now in foster care, she said. The mother is still alive as well.

It may take some time. But perhaps, many of those 250,000 babies born to AIDS moms will be spared the illness, thanks to  Dr. Deveikis.  

    Dr. Deveikis simply broke the rules, broke the protocol for treating AIDS babies – and may as a result have saved many lives.   And of course, she read the literature and case studies.   

    Thanks, Dr. Deveikis!   It took courage to defy the conventional protocol, and you may even have endangered your career in doing so.   Perhaps one day you will get a Nobel Prize.   I wonder why no other doctors thought simply to administer the large doses of anti-AIDS drugs to newborns at risk?   I guess it’s really hard to think out of the box. 

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital