With the emergence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, commonly referred to as the coronavirus, hand sanitisers have gone from being niche products to one of the most widely discussed means by which to control the spread of the virus.
Although soap and water are the gold standards for handwashing to reduce the risk of contracting or transmitting coronaviruses, hand sanitisers provide an alternative when the former are not available or unsuitable.
The major active ingredient in hand sanitisers is the alcohol component — either ethanol or isopropyl alcohol — which exerts broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity.
Use of methanol is contraindicated on account of toxicity. Alcohols kill microbes (germs) through membrane damage and denaturation of constituent proteins. Hydrogen peroxide, used in some formulations, on the other hand, acts under its oxidant activity against bacteria, fungi and viruses. Hydrogen peroxide is combined with alcohol in hand sanitisers for enhanced activity and to exploit its activity against bacterial spores.
Soaps cleanse the skin of organic material including microbes, which are washed away with the rinsing water. Additionally, by surfactant effects, soaps have solubilising activity against microbes with a lipid membrane or envelope including the coronavirus. In situations where soap and running water are unavailable, sanitisers come in handy. Alcohol in sanitisers rapidly evaporates leaving no residue, rendering them applicable in diverse circumstances.
Hand sanitiser formulations recommended for coronaviruses must be alcohol-based with at least 60 percent alcohol.
Water accounts for most of the remainder of the formulation.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has developed two formulations, which use either ethanol or isopropyl alcohol.
On March 18, 2020, the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs) released a list of 36 licensed local manufacturers of hand sanitisers. Previously, production of sanitisers was limited due to hitherto low demand for these products. The sudden surge in demand occasioned by the coronavirus cannot be met on short notice. Furthermore, these companies may not invest in scaling up production due to market uncertainty post-Covid-19 and the proposed introduction of free government sanitisers.
Government manufacturing will be useful for rapid short-term mass production and distribution to user points free of charge. For this purpose, alcohol from sugar factories and distillers may be diverted to the manufacture of sanitisers. Whether the government mobilises adequate supplies to meet the demand for an extended period is yet to be demonstrated.
The first coronavirus case in Kenya elicited panic buying of hand sanitiser products, clearing supermarket and store shelves within a day. Individual households took to the use of alternatives such as surgical spirit and hydrogen peroxide for making homemade sanitiser using the WHO formula and other recipes available online. Unfortunately, this approach may not be effective due to a lack of skills and tools for proper formulation at home.
The current coronavirus crisis has exposed the country’s soft underbelly in the lack of self-sufficiency in the production of essential commodities.
Dependence on imported goods predisposes the country to a catastrophic lockdown in supply chains upon closure of borders. Supply chains built on sourcing goods from a single country and supplier will now be considered a major business risk and poor practice.
In pursuance of the Big Four agenda, industrialisation needs to be deliberately and systematically initiated, nurtured and incentivised for sustainability at the national and county levels.
Kenyans are yet to reap from the projected benefits of devolution which was envisaged to promote local production, cottage industries, value addition and the accompanying benefits to the population.
The sanitiser and hand soap manufacturing market, therefore, presents a significant investment opportunity for local industrialists and entrepreneurs. The manufacture of hand sanitisers and other alcohol-based products locally in partnership with sugar producers, for instance, is a prime example of how the county’s manufacturing base can be realigned to address new challenges and Kenya’s self-sufficiency in the production of essential goods.
Nasser Nyamweya (lecturer) and Kennedy Abuga (associate professor), School of Pharmacy at the University of Nairobi.