At last . . . scientists may have found the cure for the common cold. Or is it something to be sneezed at?

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The Independent Online
Could it be that one of the Holy Grails of medicine - the cure for the common cold -has finally been found? From the palpable excitement in the past 48 hours, it might seem that the rhinovirus, cause of about 60 per cent of colds, has finally been blown away.

Reports have suggested that a zinc-based compound, which could be taken in lozenge form, was able to prevent the virus which causes most colds from getting a grip on the nose and throat lining where it multiplies.

But as cold-sufferers dreamt of a sniffle-free winter, reports of its death were yesterday described as greatly exaggerated. Quigley Corporation, a US medicines manufacturer which has been a key source of funding for the latest research, dismissed as "inaccurate" the suggestions that it had helped find a cure.

Guy Quigley, the company president, said no further comment would be made by the company until the results of official clinical trials are published in six weeks time in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine. The leader of the research team, Professor Sabrina Novick of Hofstra University in New York state, also refused to comment and described discussion as "premature".

Some scientists question anyway whether there is any point in trying to find a cure at all. "Once you have a cold, you've got a cold. You have to ask whether it is worthwhile shortening its length," said Dr Geoffrey Scott, a microbiologist at University College London Hospital yesterday. "Whether it's necessary from a medical point of view is very dubious."

However, from the commercial point of view the benefits of finding a cure for colds caused by the rhinovirus would be immense.

Since organised medicine began, hyped cures for the common cold have occurred in as many varieties as the "rhinovirus" itself. Antibiotics have minimal effect, because they cannot destroy a virus. Vitamin C, whose virtues were touted by the great Nobel prizewinning chemist Linus Pauling, failed to have any noticeable effect in clinical trials.

The latest twist involves zinc - an essential trace element for digestion, reproduction, kidney function, diabetes control, taste and smell. Trials in the 1980s suggested that zinc-based compounds could shorten the duration of colds, but other scientists were unable to get the same results in their own trials.

Recent reports suggested that particular zinc compounds, if taken as soon as symptoms appear, could stop a cold before it gets a grip because the zinc ions would fill molecular "canyons" in the coat of the virus, preventing it from sticking to healthy cells in the nose and throat.

Yesterday, British experts remained deeply sceptical about the claims. Dr Ron Eccles, director of the Common Cold and Nasal Research Centre in Cardiff, said: "I think it's being overhyped at present. It's interesting but it's very early to say what has been found.

"It's not very hard evidence. Someone has looked at the effects of zinc in vitro where it does affect the virus. But it is still a very big leap to test to see whether it works when you put it up people's noses. You can have things in a nice clean testtube but in people's bodies there are all sorts of things that may not make it work."

Dr Scott agreed: "We've known for many years that zinc has anti-viral properties. But without any clinical trials to look at, you can't comment on `breakthroughs'. It's relying on hearsay. It's not the virus that is causing the symptoms. It is the immune response that causes this. It's part of the healing process. It's a very difficult problem to unravel."

One of the puzzling aspects of the latest claims is that zinc is naturally present in high concentrations throughout the body - leading sceptical scientists to wonder why it does not fill the "canyons" naturally, but requires a costly lozenge.

Cheaper remedies have been used for centuries. Hot steam infusions including lavender, peppermint, rosemary, eucalyptus or thyme have some effect. Alcohol can help alleviate the misery.

The first reports that vitamin C might benefit the cold came in the 1930s. The idea gained much more public attention with the studies of Dr Pauling in the 1970s, who suggested that taking a milligram of vitamin C every day would reduce the incidence and severity of colds. Unfortunately, his position was weakened when he gave a high-profile lecture backing this work while suffering from a streaming cold.

Worries about the latest suggestion for a cure have also focussed on whether people should be encouraged to take large amounts of zinc. Quigley Corporation recommends taking six lozenges - each containing 11.5mg - per day, a total of 69 mg. The recommended daily intake is 15mg per day.

Dr Trevor Delves, consultant biochemist at Southampton University NHS Trust, said: "It is not going to do you any harm to take 60mg of zinc over a short period of time but over a long period of time it can interfere with the absorption of copper, which can be quite serious. Copper is essential in a whole range of things but particularly synthesis of haemoglobin [in red blood cells] which can induce anaemia and also heart disorders in a very severe case. I would just be worried that people would be tempted to take it for three or four months."

"I think we have to retain a fair amount of scepticism about this work," added Dr Eccles. "I think you'd find a sugar lozenge would be just as good."

The cold facts

1. More than 200 different known viruses cause cold-like symptoms; the rhino-virus (at 40 per cent) is the most common.

2. The highest speed at which particles expelled by a sneeze have been measured is 103.6mph.

3. Of every 100 patients consulting their GP, about 24 will be there because of an infection of the upper respiratory tract.

4. Research has shown that the incidence of colds is higher among the better educated.

5. In 1785 Louis XVI of France decreed that all handkerchiefs must be square.

6. You cannot sneeze with your eyes open.

7. A Canadian folk remedy for the common cold goes as follows: put a hat on a table, drink from a whisky bottle until you can see two hats, then go to bed.

8. Research has shown that two units of alcohol a day will significantly decrease your chance of catching a cold but only if you are a non-smoker.

9. On average, everyone on earth has two colds a year.

10. The liquid most effective for treating the common cold has been shown to be chicken soup, which helps even if diluted 200 times.

11. Nearly 4 million working days are lost each year through the common cold.

12. Colds vanished almost completely from Sarajevo during the harshest period of the recent war, possibly because stress enhances the functioning of the body's defences.