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This once-in-a-century pandemic has put the spotlight on vehicle cabin sanitation and disinfection, to the point that car dealerships have included such services as integral to their aftersales services. As such, there have also been a rise in the popularity of different car disinfection brands.

Some products claim to be both anti-bacterial and antiviral. How do we make that distinction, and how do we make the right product choices for our car?

We ask the scientists (virologists and microbiologists) some of the key distinctions between bacteria and viruses, and what ingredients act against them best.

What are the main differences between a bacteria and a virus?

Dr. Leodevico L. Ilag (a scientist with a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology, and a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the structural biology of viruses and viral proteins): Most bacteria are free-living organisms. In contrast, viruses are dependent on a host for it to multiply and exert any of its functions.

Dr. Leodevico L. Ilag

Dr. John Carlo M. Malabad, MD, PhD in Molecular Medicine (Assistant Scientist of the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development Department of Science and Technology): Before we proceed to their differences, allow me to state their similarities. Both bacteria and viruses are microscopic, not visible to the naked human eye, and are present everywhere around us. They can cause diseases in living things like plants, animals and humans, but there are also “good” bacteria and viruses that provide health benefits. Bacteria and viruses cause diseases when they break through the defenses of the human body. Both can spread when passed from one sick person to another.
Bacteria are free-living organisms that can exist on their own. In contrast, viruses need a host or other organism in order to replicate or multiply, that’s why they’re called “obligate parasites”. Antibiotics can kill bacteria, but are not effective against viruses.

Dr. John Carlo M. Malabad,

Can an antibacterial agent also be antiviral, or vice versa?

Ilag: Yes, but not in all cases. Enveloped viruses or viruses such as herpes virus, Covid-19/coronaviruses, which have a lipid coat are susceptible to antibacterial agents that work against lipids such as alcohol, mild detergents, and other surfactants. However, these types of anti-bacterial agents will not work against non-enveloped viruses or viruses that do not have a lipid coat (such as poliovirus, rhinovirus, parvovirus, etc).

There are also antibiotics, which usually work against bacteria by interfering against an essential element unique to the bacterium required for its survival without affecting the host. In general, antibiotics only work against bacteria since the enzymes of bacteria are different from the viral enzymes. Bacteria also have cell walls which are susceptible to specific types of antibiotics. Likewise, antiviral agents are specific against factors important in the viral life cycle in the host cell and will not interfere with bacterial enzymes or factors. However, in some instances an antibiotic may have some anti-viral properties such as doxycycline which seems to act as a protease inhibitor of an enzyme important in the replication of the SARS-CoV2 virus.

Hypochlorite (commonly called Clorox or bleach) will also work against all pathogens, but is not something one can use on/in the body. It is, however, very effective as a surface disinfectant.

Malabad: “Antimicrobials” is a general term for agents that kill bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. This term includes the antibacterial/antibiotic, antiviral, antiparasitic and antifungal agents. Generally, antibacterial agents only act against bacteria, and antiviral agents against viruses. However, there are agents that can kill both bacteria and viruses, and they are more appropriately called antimicrobial agents. One such example is bleach solution, which is a disinfectant that can kill bacteria and viruses. It is important to check the label and look at whether it has been approved to kill bacteria and/or viruses.

For oral medications, however, antibacterials cannot become antiviral, nor can antivirals become antibacterial.

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