News, Culture & Society

Science expert Dr Karl answers the common questions people have about COVID-19

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki released his latest podcast on Science with Dr Karl

One of Australia’s leading science commentators has answered Australians’ most pressing questions about the coronavirus pandemic – and revealed why it could easily mutate year after year.

Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, who has degrees in medicine and biomedical engineering, has uploaded a number of COVID-19 related podcasts on Science with Dr Karl, with the latest looking at whether the disease can be spread via patting a dog or inhaling cigarette smoke, and if using hand sanitiser can lead to motorists blowing positive on a roadside blood alcohol test.

While many Australians understand that they need to stay indoors and continue to wash their hands during lockdown, what to do in these real-life situations is less clear-cut.  

Can you get coronavirus from patting a dog that someone with the virus has touched? 

The virus in general survives better on smooth surfaces like a bench top rather than more porous materials like dog hair.

Dog hair tends to absorb material from the virus rather than allowing it to stay on the surface, so at this stage scientists are less concerned about our pets being a source of transmission.

However, it is still recommended that anyone petting a strange dog should use hand sanitiser or wash their hands with soap as soon as they can. 

The virus in general survives better on smooth surfaces like a bench top rather than more porous materials like dog hair (pictured - a woman walks on a Queensland beach with her dogs)

The virus in general survives better on smooth surfaces like a bench top rather than more porous materials like dog hair (pictured – a woman walks on a Queensland beach with her dogs)

If a farmer passed the coronavirus on to his cattle or sheep, could we get it from eating those animals later on?

Dr Karl believes the cooking process, which would involve heating the meat to temperatures above 60 degrees, is most likely to kill the virus should it survive in a slaughtered animal.

‘At the moment we are seeing humans giving the virus to animals but not the other way around,’ he said.

There isn’t any evidence that people should be cautious around their meats, so long as they heat it up.

Should couriers and retail staff wear surgical masks?

Couriers and retail staff who wear them need to remember that the usual surgical masks we see are designed to be disposable, so they should only use them once. 

And anyone who uses a cloth mask should wash it after every single use, and dispose of gloves after every use as well. 

‘You can get a false sense of security by wearing gloves and thinking you’re repelling the virus,’ Dr Karl said.

In fact, if a supermarket cashier wears the same gloves as they serve several customers they can pick up the virus and pass it to an entire line of shoppers. 

At present the Australian government isn’t recommending healthy people wear masks, only those who are unwell. 

Dr Karl says couriers and retail staff who wear masks and gloves must make sure they are disposing of them at the right time instead of being lulled into a false sense of security by the protective gear (food delivery drivers stand together in Sydney in April)

Dr Karl says couriers and retail staff who wear masks and gloves must make sure they are disposing of them at the right time instead of being lulled into a false sense of security by the protective gear (food delivery drivers stand together in Sydney in April)

Can using lots of alcohol-heavy hand sanitiser make you blow positive during a blood alcohol test?

At the moment it’s not known whether using hand sanitiser containing a lot of alcohol will have an affect on a roadside breath test, but Dr Karl believes it’s something the police should look into.  

An ex-police officer who called in to the podcast was breath tested and blew a positive reading despite not drinking anything in days. She believed it was down to using hand sanitiser.

Dr Karl said the police would need a larger sample size in order to determine whether sanitiser can land motorists in trouble. 

Those who are driving trucks are considered essential workers but they're also using a fair amount of hand sanitiser (NSW police conducting a random breath test)

Those who are driving trucks are considered essential workers but they’re also using a fair amount of hand sanitiser (NSW police conducting a random breath test)

Can coronavirus travel on cigarette smoke particles?

While COVID-19 can spread through airborne particles when you cough and sneeze, the likelihood that a positive patient who smokes will pass on the disease through cigarette smoke alone is very unlikely, according to Dr Karl. 

The amount of particles needed to transfer the virus between is 100,000, and this won’t happen through smoke.

But if you do smoke you are more susceptible to getting the virus in general because the chemicals within cigarettes work to hamper your respiratory system.

So while it’s advised that you quit smoking during the pandemic, if you smell smoke while walking around you aren’t at a heightened risk of getting coronavirus. 

Scientists don't believe you're at an increased risk of getting COVID-19 if you breathe in someone else's cigarette smoke (woman smoking in Sydney in March)

Scientists don’t believe you’re at an increased risk of getting COVID-19 if you breathe in someone else’s cigarette smoke (woman smoking in Sydney in March)

Could the virus mutate next year, just like the flu does year-on-year?

There is potential for that to happen, Dr Karl said. 

Medical professionals know that COVID-19 is an RNA virus like influenza, and these viruses can easily mutate. 

‘We know this virus has mutated but it’s not doing it at a fast pace,’ Dr Karl said.

It will likely be treated with a yearly vaccine that we need to monitor and prepare for, just like the flu.     

Dr Karl has previously answered other questions in relation to COVID-19: 

Will getting the flu shot increase your chances of getting coronavirus? 

Medical professionals are recommending Australians get the flu shot this year when it is released in April.

It will not increase your chances of getting coronavirus, nor will it decrease it, but it will ease the burden on our hospitals for those who might need emergency care should they get the flu this winter.

Dr Karl recommends getting the vaccine, especially since there is none for COVID-19. 

Medical professionals are highly recommending individuals get the flu shot this year when it is released in April, but it won't protect you against coronavirus

Medical professionals are highly recommending individuals get the flu shot this year when it is released in April, but it won’t protect you against coronavirus

Can the virus spread on petrol pumps?

If you get infected by the coronavirus you don’t start showing symptoms before 5-12 days. 

It could technically be possible but Dr Karl didn’t know of any reliable research that  links those two things directly because it’s difficult to trace back after five or 12 days.

It’s best to apply hand sanitiser after using a petrol pump just to be cautious. 

Should we be disinfecting our phones?

Absolutely. The best way to think of a phone is as your ‘third hand’, Dr Karl revealed. 

It’s very possible that germs you’re picking up with your hands can get onto your phone and then touch your face when you answer a call.

Wipe your phone down with alcohol wipes once a day to ensure it stays clean. 

Would COVID-19 survive on paper receipts?

‘The closest to paper we have is cardboard and it seems to last on cardboard for 24 hours,’ Dr Karl said.

If you throw it away, and then go home and wash your hands, the virus will die on the paper within 24 hours and you won’t be infected.

Scientists believe an infectious dose of the virus requires about 100,000 particles, which means a large surface is needed for transmission.

'The closest to paper we have is cardboard and it seems to last on cardboard for 24 hours,' Dr Karl said

‘The closest to paper we have is cardboard and it seems to last on cardboard for 24 hours,’ Dr Karl said

How long does coronavirus last on a surface?

According to tests the virus lasts the least amount of time on copper and cardboard. On cardboard there is no coronavirus detected after 24 hours, which is different to stainless steel and plastic where it was detected after 72 hours.

But Dr Karl said that the ‘detections’ might only be trace amounts existing on the surfaces and may not be enough to actually infect anyone.

It’s not yet known how potent these trace amounts have to be to infect a person.   

How will the vaccine work?

At the moment people who catch the virus are waiting up to two weeks for their immune system, or immunoglobulins, to ‘kick in’ and fight the disease – in which time there is a risk of complications and death.

Once people are exposed to a tiny amount of the disease in the form of a vaccine, their bodies will produce immunoglobulins after two weeks that stay in the body – meaning when they encounter coronavirus in the broader world their natural immunoglobulins will kick in within hours – not a fortnight.

Dr Karl said this is the ultimate aim of the vaccine scientists are attempting to make within the next 12 to 18 months. 

Dr Karl said this is the ultimate aim of the vaccine scientists are attempting to make within the next 12 to 18 months (pictured is a vaccine lab in England)

Dr Karl said this is the ultimate aim of the vaccine scientists are attempting to make within the next 12 to 18 months (pictured is a vaccine lab in England)

Coronavirus symptoms and how it spreads: 

Symptoms of coronavirus

Symptoms can range from mild illness to pneumonia. Some people will recover easily, and others may get very sick very quickly. People with coronavirus may experience:  

  • fever 
  • flu-like symptoms such as coughing, sore throat and fatigue 
  • shortness of breath

How it spreads 

There is evidence that the virus spreads from person-to-person. The virus is most likely spread through:

  • close contact with an infectious person
  • contact with droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze
  • touching objects or surfaces (like doorknobs or tables) that have cough or sneeze droplets from an infected person, and then touching your mouth or face 

How to prevent it

Everyone should practice good hygiene to protect against infections. Good hygiene includes:

  • washing your hands often with soap and water
  • using a tissue and cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze
  • avoiding close contact with others, such as touching

Is surfing a low-risk activity?

At the moment Australians can still exercise outside as long as they’re 1.5 metres apart.

Being out in the ocean to swim or surf is considered low-risk so long as you keep your distance and don’t touch anyone out there.

‘It’s very unlikely that the virus will be able to live in salt water or a very well chlorinated pool,’ Dr Karl said, citing the chemicals and expansive nature of the ocean.

At the moment Australians can still exercise outside as long as they're 1.5 metres apart (swimmers pictured in Manly, Sydney)

At the moment Australians can still exercise outside as long as they’re 1.5 metres apart (swimmers pictured in Manly, Sydney)

Being out in the ocean to swim or surf is considered low-risk so long as you keep your distance and don't touch anyone out there (surfers at Freshwater Beach in Sydney)

Being out in the ocean to swim or surf is considered low-risk so long as you keep your distance and don’t touch anyone out there (surfers at Freshwater Beach in Sydney)

How does soap get rid of the virus? 

Most viruses consist of three key building blocks: ribonucleic acid (RNA), proteins and lipids.

The fat-like substances in soap ‘loosens’ the connections between these three building blocks, breaking them down and ‘killing’ the virus –  or rendering it inactive.

Just washing with water isn’t strong enough to loosen the connections, which is why soap is such a useful protector. 

Can we expect these types of pandemics to come around more often in the future?

Dr Karl pointed to the SARS and swine flu outbreaks as evidence that other pandemics are certainly possible.  

‘These pandemics are just part of nature because we want to live and viruses want to live. We were warned by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that were was another one going to come,’ he said.

‘Australia didn’t set up a pandemic team at the time and we need to be ready for it in the future.’

It's likely we could see a similar pandemic again in our lifetime, but Australia will be in a better place to deal with it

It’s likely we could see a similar pandemic again in our lifetime, but Australia will be in a better place to deal with it 

Is coronavirus more severe in a hot summer or cold winter?

A lot of the largest outbreaks have happened in countries that have cooler temperatures, so people have suggested that the disease will die off when the weather warms up, but this may not be the case.

It’s early days so it’s too soon to have any firm numbers but the Spanish flu in 1918 peaked in the summer months, despite the flu normally being associated with winter.

So it’s best not to assume that things will cool off as summer hits the Northern Hemisphere.  

Is anyone immune to the virus?

COVID-19 is a brand new virus, meaning that no one is immune to it the first time they are exposed.  

If you get it and recover, it’s not known yet if people have lasting immunity. 

There were some reports earlier this year of people contracting it twice, but it’s Dr Karl’s understanding that these people just weren’t fully cured the first time.

COVID-19 is a brand new virus, meaning that no one is immune to it the first time they are exposed

COVID-19 is a brand new virus, meaning that no one is immune to it the first time they are exposed

Are there a lot of cases out in the community that the government doesn’t know about?

We have not been doing enough testing according to Dr Karl, so there are certainly people who have not been tested that have had the disease.   

Those that believe they have the virus should try to get tested as much as possible so the numbers recorded are as effective as they can be. 

Once they have been tested they should remain isolated for at least 14 days. 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk