A theoretical discussion of the possibility and possible mechanisms of using
sesame oil for prevention of 2019-nCoV (Wuhan coronavirus) from the
perspective of colloid and interface science
Wen Fan1, Jing Zeng2, Yunfeng Xu1
1School of Materials Science and Engineering, Ministry of Education Key Laboratory
for the Green Preparation and Application of Functional Materials, Hubei University,
Wuhan, Hubei, 430062, China
2Department of Materials Science, Fudan University, Shanghai 200433, China
Abstract: Due to the spread of 2019-nCoV (Wuhan coronavirus), 9 million people
are being isolated in the city of Wuhan in China, and more than thirty-four thousand
people have been infected by the coronavirus up to February 8, 2020. The coronavirus
is airborne and highly infectious at short contact distances. The use of high-efficiency
respirators or masks (eg, N95 respirators) can protect people against the coronavirus,
but the protective effect may be insufficient when the filtration efficiency of masks is
not high enough or the wearing of masks is inappropriate. A folk method states that
the adding of sesame oil in nostrils can prevent the spread of plague, but the validity
and mechanism of this method still remains uncertain. Based on our previous studies
on colloid and interface science, we think there are some theoretical reasons to
support the sesame oil method for preventing viral infection by considering the
physical-chemical properties of sesame oil, such as low surface tension, high-boiling
point, high viscosity, immiscible with water and antivirus activity. This manuscript
mainly discusses the possible physical-chemical mechanisms involved in the sesame
oil method, and also proposes some potential methods for preventing the virus
infection if the mechanisms of the sesame oil method can be confirmed by further
experimental and clinical results, and may finally contribute to prevent the spread of
the coronavirus as soon as possible.
Keywords: 2019-nCoV, sesame oil, colloid, interface, surface tension, antivirus
In December 2019, the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV or so-called Wuhan
coronavirus) was first found in pneumonia patients living in Wuhan, China. The
2019-nCoV is the seventh coronaviruses known to infect humans, and is capable of
human-to-human transmission. The viruses can cause respiratory infection symptoms
including fever, dry cough, shortness of breath and respiratory distress[1-4].
Morphologically, the 2019-nCoV is a spherical particle with a size ranging from
60 nm to 140 nm under the observation of transmission electron microscope (TEM).
The virus is surrounded by 9-12 nm long club-shaped viral spike peplomers, which
are proteins (S-proteins) that are located on virus envelope and determine host tropism,
and also leading to a corona-like appearance.
The S-proteins on 2019-nCoV are regarded to have strong binding affinity to
human Angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), although the binding free energy
between the 2019-nCoV S-protein and ACE2 (-50.6 kcal mol–1) is calculated to be u
than that between the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV)
S-protein and ACE2 (-78.6 kcal mol–1). Thus, when the S-proteins can bind to the
surface receptors of sensitive cells, the virus will entry into the target cells for further
Recent research indicates that the ACE2 virus receptor expression is
concentrated in a small population of type Ⅱ alveolar cells (AT2) in human lungs,
which expresses many other genes favoring the viral process. The abundant
expression of ACE2 in a population of AT2 leads to the severe alveolar damage after
infection, namely pneumonia. The cell-type-specific expression pattern of ACE2
indicates that the ACE2 is also sparsely expressed in type Ⅰ alveolar cells (ATⅠ),
airway epithelial cells, fibroblasts and endothelial cells.
The 2019-nCoV is now rapidly spreading in Wuhan, which is the capital of
Hubei province and also the largest city in central China. In order to prevent the
spread of the virus to other areas in Hubei, China and even the world, Wuhan and
Hubei have restricted their public transportation to each other areas. At present, 9
million people are being isolated in Wuhan, 34,598 people have been infected by the
2019-nCoV, and 27,657 people are suspected to be infected up to February 8, 2020.
Currently, the isolation of people is very necessary, but a long time isolation of many
people can cause considerable economic losses to people and society.
In the following, we first investigate the epidemiological features of 2019-nCoV,
and then give some theoretical discussion on the possibility and possible mechanisms
of using sesame oil for prevention of 2019-nCoV from the perspective of colloid and
Up to now, the epidemiological characteristics found in the 2019-nCoV include:
1. The outbreak of the 2019-nCoV happened in winter (that is, December 2019 to
January, 2020), the same months as SARS-CoV (December 2002 to January,
2. There were strong evidences of human-to-human transmission of 2019-nCoV
among the close contacts of infected patients;
3. Among the first 425 patients, the median age was 59 years and 56% were male.
The mean incubation period was 5.2 days with the 95th percentile of the distribution
at 12.5 days, and the basic reproductive number was estimated to be 2.2;
4. Importantly, there were 2019-nCoV-infected people with no obvious clinical
symptoms or long incubation period but were still capable of infecting other people in
close contact[10-12]. These asymptomatic infected people may pose a serious risk for
the transmission of infection to healthy population.
Here, we discuss possible mechanisms to explain the above phenomena:
1. In winter, the temperature decreases and the air becomes cold and dry. The
breathing of cold dry air can lead to unfavorable changes in the upper respiratory
system (the nasal cavity, pharynx and larynx)[13-15]. For example, in nasal mucosa, the
cold air may cause a vasoconstriction of the nasal mucosa and thereby an inadequate
supply of blood and nutrients to support the anti-virus functions of the nasal
mucosa[13-15]. For instance, the cold air-induced slowing of mucociliary clearance of
the nasal passage can encourage viral spread into the respiratory tract[13-15]. In addition,
exposure to dry air can also impair host defense against viral infection and reduce
tissue repair. Thus, the climatic conditions in winter can reduce the protective
immunity of the population, and infections occur and spread more commonly during
the winter[17-21], and this may explain both the outbreak of SARS-CoV and
2019-nCoV in the winter.
The statistical data on SARS indicates that the number of infected people
reached a maximum value around May 2003, then gradually reduced to zero around
July 2003. This may be related to better climatic conditions (eg, high temperature and
high relative humidity environment) could lead to an increased protective immunity
against virus infection.
2. Similar to SARS-CoV, the transmission of 2019-nCoV may occur
predominantly through direct mucous membrane (nose, mouth or eye) contact with
infectious respiratory droplets within close vicinity of an infected person, and/or
through exposure to fomites, such as hand-to-mouth (or hand-to-nose and hand-to-eye)
contact with fomites, and inhalation of virus-containing aerosols generated from the
evaporation of respiratory droplets produced by patients during coughing, sneezing or
even talking[23-28]. Research on SARS-CoV indicates that the aerosol should not be
distributed evenly in an enclosed space, that is, the aerosol concentration decays as
one moves away from the source. Thus, close or long-term contact with an infected
patient is considered to be a major risk factor for infection.
3. The 2019-nCoV can have a long incubation period of up to 14 days, and a
more worrying feature of the 2019-nCoV is that asymptomatic or mild cases could
transmit the virus to other healthy people[10,30-32]. There are also 2019-nCoV infected
patients that have developed respiratory failure and severe pneumonia after infection
of 2019-nCoV, many of them are older patients with underlying diseases[33-35].
Based on the discussion above, we guess there is a possibility to explain these
For asymptomatic infected people, they may have a strong protective immunity
in their upper respiratory tract system even in the winter, thus the 2019-nCoV cannot
enter the lower respiratory tract. Because it has been demonstrated that tissues of the
upper respiratory tract, such as oral and nasal mucosa and nasopharynx, did not show
ACE2 expression on the surface of epithelial cells[36,37], the 2019-nCoV can be treated
as “a common virus” by the body, and the virus only stays and replicates in the
invasion site of upper respiratory tract. These asymptomatic infected people may
produce infectious respiratory droplets and virus-containing aerosols by talking or
even breathing and become virus spreaders.
A Statistical analysis on SARS showed that SARS occurred more frequently at
7-12 days later after a sudden drop in air temperature from a gradually rising air
temperature[38,39]. This indicates that sometimes the SARS-nCoV may be already
present and “living” in the upper respiratory tract of people, but is blocked from
entering the lower respiratory tract due to the better protective immunity in upper
respiratory tract during higher air temperature. While a sudden drop in temperature
will reduce the protective immunity of upper respiratory tract, thus the virus has
increased opportunities to infect the lower respiratory tract.
For some infected people, their protective immunity in upper respiratory tract
system is weaker (especially those older or frail people) and the 2019-nCoV has more
opportunities to invade the lower respiratory tract. After the entry of virus in the lower
respiratory tract, the S-proteins on the surface of the 2019-nCoV can bind to the
surface receptors (ACE2) of sensitive cells (AT2), then leading to the development of
A possible approach may help to prevent 2019-nCoV
Currently, the use of personal protective equipments, such as N95 respirators,
surgical masks, gloves and goggles can offer a level of protection against the
transmission of the coronavirus[40-43]. N95 respirators or surgical masks are especially
necessary to prevent droplet-spread and airborne transmission of infectious agents
because of their high filtration efficiency. A study on SARS-nCoV indicates that
N95 respirators may offer more protection than surgical masks. While some other
studies indicate that there is no significant difference in protection between them[41,43].
The main risk factors for 2019-nCoV infection may be the inappropriate use of
respirators or masks, or the use of masks with lower filtration efficiency when people
are in direct contact or close proximity to infected patients[43,44].
The development of the protective drugs or vaccines for 2019-nCoV is in the
process. A potential problem is that if the production of drugs can meet the needs of
a large number of people in a short period[46,47].
Some people are afraid of the 2019-nCoV and propose to use some folk methods
for preventing the infection of the virus. For example, some people tend to use sesame
oil. Because a Chinese medicine book named <串雅内外编> (1759 AD) says that if
sesame oil is added and coated to a person's nostrils, the person will not be infected by
plague when the person go to a plague patient's home[48-50]. Recently, the Indian
government gave similar recommendations that instilling two drops of sesame oil in
each nostril every morning can be used to prevent the new coronavirus, according to
their ancient ayurvedic medicine. However, many news reports claim that the
sesame oil method is useless and sesame oil could not protect people from viral
At present, we think there is no clinical or theoretical evidence to show that the
sesame oil method is invalid or valid. Many Chinese folk medical methods were the
life experiences accumulated by the ancient Chinese people, although they may not
know the mechanism. Some folk medical methods may have high value. For example,
inspired by traditional Chinese medicine book named < 肘 后 备 急 方 > (340 AD),
Youyou Tu discovered artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin and used them to treat
malaria, saving millions of lives across the globe[54-56]. Thus, we need to pay more
scientific attention to the potential useful clues from the folk medical methods.
We think, from the perspective of colloid and interface science, there may be
some reasons to consider that the sesame oil method may have the potential to protect
people from infection of virus. The following is a theoretical analysis and assumption
of the possibility and possible mechanism of using sesame oil to prevent infection of
First, sesame oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from sesame seeds. Pure
sesame oil has a relatively low surface tension (about 28 mN/m at 28°C) and is
incompatible with water[58,59]. Thus, because the relatively low intermolecular
attraction between adjacent sesame oil molecules, pure sesame oil has a good
wettability and can readily wet the surface of various solid and aqueous phases. For
example, Figure 1 shows that when pure sesame oil was dropped onto the surface of
water, the sesame oil was readily and rapidly spread out on the water surface. Our
previous study published in Science Advances indicates that a low surface tension oil,
such as hexane (18.4 mN/m at 25°C) or silicone oil (about 16-21 mN/m at 25°C) can
sufficiently wet the surface nanostructure of various solids. Thus, when sesame oil
is added and coated to a person's two nostrils, the sesame oil may wet the nasal
mucosa and act as a large area of protective layer. In addition, sesame oil has a high
boiling point of about 215 °C, thus the protective layer may remain for a longtime.
Figure 1. The spreading out of pure sesame oil onto the surface of water indicates that
sesame oil has a low surface tension.
Second, the protective layer of sesame oil onto the nasal mucosa may has a
suitable surface tension, viscosity, adhesion and thickness to catch and trap the virus
particles when a person is breathing with his nose, and thus preventing the direct
contact and binding of virus onto the surface of nasal mucosa, as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. (A) The catching and trapping of virus particles by the sesame oil protective
layer onto the nasal mucosa. (B) The sesame oil layer may block the physical contact
between the virus nanoparticles and the nasal mucosa surface.
Figure 3 shows the schematic diagram of possible interface behavior of
virus-containing aerosols or virus-containing aqueous droplets at the air/sesame oil
interface. Generally, the adsorption behavior of dried particles at an air/oil interface
can be determined by the combined contributions of various effects, including the
hydrophilic and hydrophobic properties of particles, particle surface morphology,
particle size, air/oil surface tension, three-phase contact angle, oil viscosity and oil
density, etc[61-63]. Overall, a lower air/oil surface tension will facilitate the adsorption
and entrance of dried particles at the air/oil interface. For submicron-sized or
micron-sized aqueous droplets containing virus nanoparticles, the droplets could be
absorbed at the air/oil interface. Because water has slight solubility in sesame oil,
the virus nanoparticles could enter into the oil phase after the solution of water in
Figure 3. Schematic diagram of the possible adsorption process of virus-containing
aerosols or virus-containing aqueous droplets at the air/sesame oil interface.
A recent study suggests that compared to the SARS-nCoV, the S-protein on the
2019-nCoV has additional hydrophilicity in the protein structure, thus may provide an
enhanced affinity towards host cell receptors and might have also increased the range
of host cells that 2019-nCoV can infect, thereby may increase the infectivity of
Thus, the coating of sesame oil onto mucosal surface may increase the surface
hydrophobicity of mucosal surface, and thereby decreasing the binding ability of
2019-nCoV S-protein to mucosal cells.
Figure 4. The envisaged protective layer of sesame oil coated onto the surface of
nasal cavity, oral cavity and throat.
To achieve better protection effect, a person could also slowly drink some
sesame oil and keep some sesame oil in the mouth, and thus let the sesame oil cover
the mucosal surface of oral cavity and throat, as shown in Figure 4. This may further
increase the protected area and thus reduce the chance of infection by virus during
talking or mouth breathing, and may be especially useful in high-risk areas, such as
hospital environments or family environments with patients.
Third, generally, dried SARS-CoV can retain its infectivity for as long as six
days, but SARS-CoV and 2019-nCoV are also sensitive to various disinfectants,
including diethyl ether, 75% (v/v) ethanol solution, chlorinated disinfectants, fatty
solvents such as peracetic acid and chloroform[66,67].
At present, there is little experimental or theoretical investigation on the
inactivation ability of sesame oil to coronavirus, but we think that there is a
potentiality. Because the sesame oil has a low surface tension similar to that of 75%
ethanol solution (about 25 mN/m at 20 °C), which may help to disrupt the surface
structures and functions of the virus. Moreover, sesame oil is composed of various
saturated or unsaturated fatty acids, including linoleic acid (41% of total fatty acids),
oleic acid (39%), palmitic acid (8%) and stearic acid (5%)[57,69]. Some fatty acids,
especially the unsaturated fatty acids, have been proven to be active against some
For example, it has been demonstrated that incubation of vesicular stomatitis
virus with linoleic acid (a type of unsaturated fatty acid) can lead to leakage of viral
envelopes. This effect was far more pronounced with a higher linoleic acid
concentration, causing disintegration of viral particles. It was suggested that the
antiviral mechanism is due to the fatty acids can be incorporated into the lipid
membrane of viral envelopes, causing destabilization of the bilayer of viral
envelopes. Interestingly, a recent study revealed that exogenous supplement of
linoleic acid or arachidonic acid in human coronavirus 229E-infected cells was
capable of significantly suppressing the coronavirus replication. This inhibitory effect
was also observed in the highly virulent Middle East respiratory syndrome
Thus, if the structures and functions of the 2019-nCoV S-protein or the viral
envelope could be disrupted by sesame oil, the 2019-nCoV would be considered
harmless to human body, even if the viral RNA cannot be damaged.
Fourth, very importantly, sesame oil is a non-toxic and harmless cooking oil, and
can be easily found in most Chinese kitchens, and people can buy it everywhere. If
the sesame oil method can really work, every people can quickly and easily protect
themselves in various indoor and outdoor environments, and the combined use of a
mask and the protective layer of sesame oil may well prevent the further development
of the epidemic.
Moreover, commonly used disinfectants, such as 75% ethanol solution and
chlorinated disinfectants, cannot be used into human body because of their stimulation
or toxicity to body. While sesame was cultivated more than 5000 years ago, and
sesame seeds were one of the first crops processed for oil as well as one of the earliest
condiments. In industry, sesame oil can be used as a solvent in injected drugs,
intravenous drip solutions or a cosmetics carrier oil[57,77]. Thus, the safety of sesame
oil is well appreciated.
The first author of this manuscript had added two drops of sesame oil to each
nostril and added 1 mL sesame oil to mouth every morning for seven days, most of
the time there was no discomfort. A few times there was a sore throat similar to that of
a common cold, but the sore throat usually disappeared after several minutes. This
sore throat may be caused by an immune response in the upper respiratory tract due to
unknown reason at present.
Thus, we think some experimental and clinical studies can be carried out for this
sesame oil method, and to find out if the method is valid or not. For example, we can
examine if the 2019-nCoV can still invade the cultured sensitive cells after coating a
sesame oil layer onto the cells. If the sesame oil method can really work, we may
prevent the spread of virus as soon as possible. If the sesame oil method is invalid and
even harmful, no one will use the method in the future.
If the sesame oil method can really work, that is, sesame oil can inactivate the
2019-nCoV or prevent the infection of 2019-nCoV, there are also some helpful
1. For the asymptomatic infected people, we can examine if it is possible to
inactivate the 2019-nCoV in their bodies (or upper respiratory tracts) by adding
sesame oil to their nostrils and mouth, since sesame oil is capable of
permeating and entering the blood stream through the capillaries.
2. We can apply sesame oil to the surface of frequently contacted objects, such
as tables, door handles, our hands and faces. Because sesame oil has a low surface
tension and a high boiling point, sesame oil can wet the surface of various objects and
can also maintain for a longer time. While 75% ethanol solution is easily volatilized
and lose its disinfection capacity due to the low boiling point of ethanol (78 °C).
4. We can spray sesame oil into the air, for example, spraying sesame oil around
infected patients and to inactivate the virus aerosols around patients. The inhalation of
sesame oil molecules to patients' nostrils and lungs could be non-toxic and perhaps
even beneficial. While an excessive use of some other disinfectants, such as
chlorinated disinfectants, are potentially harmful to human health and the
5. Preventing the transmission of infectious diseases spread by airborne virus
poses a significant challenge. We can use a napkin containing sesame oil to cover
the nose and mouth before the wearing of a mask. In this combination, the mask can
be used to block the larger virus-containing droplets, while the napkin can be used to
adsorb, trap and inactivate the virus in aerosols that is capable of passing through the
mask. This may be useful when a high protection level N95 respirators or surgical
masks are not available.
6. We can also investigate the antiviral effects of other edible oils that have a low
surface tension, a high boiling point and contain a high proportion of unsaturated fatty
acid, such as olive oil, linseed oil and tea seed oil.
In summary, the above discussion provides some possible mechanisms and
thinking of using sesame oil to prevent the infection of the 2019-nCoV from the point
of view of colloid and interface science. Nevertheless, this sesame oil method should
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