Washing our hands of sanitiser: a vaccine is the only thing we can truly trust

Hand sanitiser was readily available for Gungahlin Eagles rugby players. But is the sanitiser doing its job? Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Hand sanitiser was readily available for Gungahlin Eagles rugby players. But is the sanitiser doing its job? Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Like the rest of Australia, I've spent the time since March actively avoiding COVID-19.

I'm a fiend for social distancing and trying to school those who attempt to breach my boundaries. Using contactless payments (not quite as freely available at EPIC markets as you might hope). Masks on public transport (but avoiding travelling as much as possible). Manic handwashing and hand sanitiser in my bag. My skin is falling off my hands.

Hand sanitiser. The hope of millions. As you will be aware, public toilets promise so much. The opportunity to go to the loo and, as importantly, the opportunity to wash and dry hands. Except that last bit where the soap is missing and the dryers are the ones which blow greeblies everywhere. So we've resorted to taking a little bottle of hand sanitiser with us everywhere to keep us safe.

Except they may not work.

Consumer advocacy group CHOICE revealed on Thursday that at least one brand of hand sanitiser was useless. Director of campaigns Erin Turner says one consumer tipped off the organisation because of concerns about a batch of hand sanitiser from retailer Mosaic Brands. Terrifying. CHOICE sent a sample of AIR Clean Instant Hand Sanitiser to an independent laboratory, the National Measurement Institute, for testing. The label on the bottle claimed 70 per cent ethyl alcohol but the lab found the alcohol content was only 23 per cent. Could make a human throw up but not have much impact on a virus.

How was this uncovered? Kathy Rice, a councillor from Kiama Municipality, was desperate to buy some hand sanitiser when all the supermarket shelves were empty. She ordered $60 worth online plus ten bucks for postage. Took two months to get to her. Once she opened it, the science teacher in her took over. It didn't smell enough like metho. Then she emailed the retailer. They weren't interested. Eventually she sent her concerns to CHOICE and the rest is a lab test result. Mosaic, selling through Katies, has now recalled this particular batch.

At this rate, we will have to carry hot water in a thermos, a cake of soap and a dry towel everywhere we go.

So what about social distancing? Well, we trust that the 1.5 metre space will protect us in most instances. We also hope that people will cough and sneeze into their elbows and very definitely will not sing anywhere near us. The now famous Chinese restaurant study showed distances of about one metre between the infected person and others who went on to contract COVID-19 but even that study can't confirm whether the air-conditioning spread the nasties further than one metre. And I keep reading scary stories (which I must stop doing as I remind myself to trust in the various chief medical officers). Here's my newest favourite though. "At wind speeds from 4km/h to 15km/h, we found that saliva droplets can travel to distances up to 6m with a decrease in concentrations and liquid droplet size in the wind direction. Our findings imply that depending on the environmental conditions, the 2m social distance may not suffice." Kill me. I'll have to stay inside until we have a vaccine.

The good news is that all these vaccine researchers are racing to be number one. Bloomberg reported on Wednesday that the University of Oxford's trial is well-ahead in the development of a vaccine - and lead researcher Sarah Gilbert has shown her faith in the project by getting her 21-year-old triplets to take part. They did. They are all well. Fingers crossed it's all on target. Much as I loved hand sanitiser and masks, a vaccine will at last allow us to sing in public.

In the meantime, CHOICE has referred the problem with this particular hand sanitiser to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and to the Therapeutic Goods Administration which both have responsibility in this area. Since the release of the results, CHOICE itself has been inundated with people concerned about their hand sanitiser. Just in one day. Turner says they have received a wave of tip offs.

The ACCC has confirmed it is looking at reports of ineffective hand sanitisers and is also aware of concerns about hand sanitisers being supplied in food- and beverage-like packaging. The TGA says it has not received any complaints concerning the alcohol content in TGA approved hand sanitiser products but from January this year until yesterday, 50 referrals were made to the TGA alleging contraventions of the relevant act relating to the import, export, manufacture or supply of hand sanitisers. 32 of these matters have been resolved. In that same period of time, the TGA received 257 reports of alleged non-compliance with the therapeutic goods advertising requirements for hand sanitiser products. There are 50 open cases.

Is there really a wider issue? We will have to wait for further lab results to find out. In the meantime, pharmaceutical sciences academic at the University of Sydney Hien Duong tells me consumers should be able to smell the alcohol when opening a bottle of hand sanitiser.

"And the alcohol should evaporate off the skin very quickly . . . if the hands are still wet, there might not be enough alcohol in the formulation," she says.

If it takes about one minute for sanitiser with an alcohol volume of 60 per cent to kill bacteria (we don't yet know how effective this is with COVID-19 because we don't have enough information), then it would take a sample with the 23 per cent volume of alcohol in the now recalled batch around 59000 minutes to achieve the same effect, says Duong. A small change in concentration has a big impact on the killing rate.

Not sure I can wave my hands in the air for that length of time. And maybe our belief in hand sanitiser is a little bit of magical thinking.

I'm looking forward to the research which tells me whether the people who used hand sanitiser avoided COVID-19. In the meantime, the only thing to do is stay home. If you do go out, wash, wash, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds. Take paper towels with you. And wait for Sarah Gilbert's triplets to rebuff any infection from COVID-19.

  • Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.
This story Is a vaccine the only thing we can have hope in? first appeared on The Canberra Times.