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From new ultraviolet wavelengths to virucidal face masks: Could these new technologies help defeat coronavirus?

David Keys speaks to scientists and health experts about the new tools that could help in the fight against Covid-19 and future coronavirus outbreaks

Tuesday 05 May 2020 17:40 BST

Scientists and health experts believe that the government should examine a range of new antiviral technologies while planning their lockdown exit strategy.

They say that there are at least half a dozen such technologies and strategies that could be combined to help make any exit strategy more effective – and help avoid a second peak in Covid-19 infections and deaths.

Potentially useful technologies include newly-developed anti-surface-contamination products, virucidal face masks, and new ultraviolet light and virus-detection ioniser systems.

Health experts believe that plans should immediately be formulated to commission the manufacture and supply of a range of vital equipment that would be needed in order to deploy those technologies - some as part of an exit strategy and others to prevent a potential second pandemic wave later this year.

“Each technology and strategy is capable of helping to reduce the transmission of coronavirus - but by deploying a range of them, as part of an integrated coordinated national anti-viral program, the impact would almost certainly be much greater,” said Professor Kevin Bampton, the chief executive of the British Occupational Hygiene Society, which represents 1,600 UK professionals involved in disease prevention and health security in factories, offices and other workplaces throughout Britain.

Health experts also see the emerging new technologies as important weapons against future pandemics.

“Emerging new technologies have the potential to play a very major role in helping Britain and the wider world defeat Covid-19 and indeed other pandemics that will almost certainly threaten us in the future,” said Dr William Keevil, Professor of Environmental Healthcare in Southampton University's School of Biological Sciences and Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology.

“The number of new viral diseases has increased significantly over recent years, often as a result of climate change,” he said.

“Antibiotics don't work against viruses and antivirals are almost non-existent – and so deploying infection prevention technologies is crucial,” said Professor Keevil.

A particularly promising new way of combating the current pandemic and preventing its return is likely to be a new form of ultraviolet light which is currently being tested at Columbia University in New York.

It has the potential to completely destroy virtually all airborne coronaviruses. Experiments have demonstrated that it kills well over 99 per cent of flu viruses and a similar percentage of those coronaviruses that have so far been tested. Now tests are being carried out on the Covid-19 coronavirus and are expected to produce similar results. The tests will be completed in the next couple of weeks.

Normally, ultraviolet light is harmful to humans and therefore cannot be deployed in occupied spaces when people could be exposed to it. But this new form of UV is of a substantially lower wavelength which is not thought to be harmful to humans or animals. So far the new system has been tested on cultured human skin and cultured human eye cornea tissue and is in the process of being tested on animals. So far, all the test results strongly suggest that the system will be capable of being deployed on a wide scale in occupied human environments without risk.

This new ultraviolet technology - known as far-UVC - could be of huge importance, because it could potentially make trains, buses, aircraft, workplaces, schools, hospitals and care homes virtually virus free. Not only is it capable of killing well over 99 per cent of airborne coronaviruses, but can also kill viruses on any surface that the UV light can reach.

Conventional wavelengths of ultraviolet light, which are far higher, can be used against viruses – but pose a potential health hazard to humans. When beamed horizontally, above head-height (ie just below ceiling level), it can kill all viruses within that area. When combined with a good air circulation system which drives old office air upwards into that zone, it can be highly effective. However, because it is conventional (ie higher wavelength) UV light, and therefore dangerous to humans, this sub-ceiling UV needs to be fitted by specialist air conditioning companies with expertise in the technology.

Another technology, with the ability to eliminate very substantial numbers of viruses, is ionisation - and recent research has been revealing that it could be used to develop a cheap, simple and comprehensive system for providing public health authorities with an effective pandemic emergence or re-emergence early warning system. Ionisers attract airborne particles, including viruses and bacteria, which can then be killed inside the machine. But by examining the dead viruses and other microbes at the end of each day (or indeed more often if required), new viral outbreaks can be detected well before infected people even know that they are ill.

Ionisers therefore have very substantial potential to combat pandemics. Scientific research by the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and in Brazil over recent years has demonstrated their ability not only to eliminate a very large percentage of any given virus – but also to detect them, and thus act as a crucial early warning system. Experiments have revealed that ionisers - which are small, cheap and portable - are capable of removing viruses from the air over a relatively large area. That suggests that a substantial open plan office would only need a limited number of such machines. A scientific experiment with animals, published in Nature Scientific Reports, as far back as 2015, revealed that ionisers are able to very substantially reduce viral transmission - and last year a much larger scale experiment in Brazil (with humans) demonstrated the equipment's ability to detect individual types of microbe in any given environment.

Potentially also of very substantial importance in helping to reduce the spread of coronavirus, is a new way of making touch surfaces anti-viral. Easy-to-fit adhesive copper foil, pioneered by a Spanish company, Alcora, could substantially reduce coronavirus transmission, if it was fitted to large numbers of workplace, school and hospital door handles, push-buttons, hand rails and other touch surfaces. Experiments at the University of Southampton suggest that, contrary to potentially flawed tests in the US, copper could reduce the transmission of hand or finger-deposited coronavirus (and other viruses) to virtually zero within 2.5 minutes (and nullify risk from sneeze or cough droplet contamination within 30 minutes).

The new technology is likely to be particularly effective because most contamination on door handles and push buttons etc is probably from contaminated hands and fingers rather than directly from cough and sneeze droplets.

“Our research strongly suggests that the copper foil being produced in Spain and other copper coatings could have a major role to play in reducing the spread of coronavirus,” said William Keevil, a professor at Southampton University.

“We are also currently in discussion with UK and overseas companies to evaluate how copper could be used in their new products to combat the transmission of viruses and other microbes,” he said.

New technology is also likely to revolutionise the use of face masks. At present most masks are not designed to be reusable – but a new process, initially developed at Bar Ilan University in Israel, is set to change that. Pioneered by a Tel Aviv-based company, Sonovia, the new process uses very high frequency sound waves to impregnate textiles with virucidal (but safe for humans) zinc oxide and copper oxide nano-particles. The new potentially virus-killing masks will be reusable – and capable of being washed and re-used around 90 times.

The same technology is now being used to develop virucidal medical gowns - and potentially anti-viral seats for aircraft, trains and buses. But it might also prove worthwhile to produce virucidal gloves or even floor coverings and footwear – to help prevent people bringing coronavirus and other viruses into their homes and workplaces. The masks' effectiveness against the Covid-19 virus is due to be tested in a laboratory in Israel this month. Tests in Sweden on a non-reusable virucidal mask have demonstrated that it is capable of killing 99.9 per cent of coronaviruses.

Another multi-use copper-impregnated anti-viral mask system is about to start development in the UK - and a US company, Cupron, has just commissioned the production in China of millions of similar masks. In Hong Kong, scientists have just developed a reusable washable (but not virucidal) face mask that can be reused 60 times. The territory's government is now planning to distribute them to all 7.5 million people there.

Although masks do give some protection to their wearers, their most important function is to reduce the amount of viral material expelled from the mouths and noses of people who have coronavirus, but do not know that they are suffering from it. Research in China and elsewhere suggests that a very large proportion of infected people do not know they have the disease – yet are able to transmit it. What's more, those people who do develop symptoms are able to transmit the virus to others well before their symptoms appear.

A particularly important new anti-coronavirus initiative is a drive by the Federation of European Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning Associations to encourage companies in their industry throughout Europe to use air conditioning and ventilation systems to reduce workplace transmission of coronavirus. Detailed guidance has now been issued by them on extending air conditioning operating times, enhancing fresh air circulation and personnel spacing, operating heat recovery devices, using high quality air purifiers – and how to prevent the recirculation of contaminated air.

One of the most effective ways of reducing viral transmission is good circulation of externally sourced air. Opening windows or having really efficient non-recirculated air conditioning (with 6-12 complete air changes per hour, if possible) - or better still a combination of both - will help remove a substantial proportion of viruses from any workplace environment.

What's more, the British Occupational Hygiene Society is releasing guidance tomorrow, Wednesday on how to enable work places to plan effectively for a safe return to work. The guidance will outline how companies and other organisations can assess the risk of coronavirus transmission on their premises – and how to prioritise and manage key anti-viral measures.

As well as deploying as many appropriate technologies as possible, the development of detailed anti-viral protocols for workplaces and schools will be crucial.

Key to making any exit strategy work will be to reduce human density levels - and maintain social distancing.

“The more people are in a room or an open plan workplace or on a bus or a train, the greater will be the risk of infection – so reducing density levels will be crucial for many months to come,” said Professor Bampton.

One of the few ways of achieving that in offices would be for the government to ask all companies to allow all staff who are able to work at home, to do so.

Likewise, staggered working hours to relieve congestion on public transport would also reduce rush-hour overcrowding.​

But to achieve that, each major conurbation may need to establish a local authority administered "staggered hours" unit to coordinate which companies are going to start and finish work at what times and in which weeks.

Because German research suggests that children and teenagers can carry and potentially transmit coronavirus (often without showing any symptoms), reducing pupil density in schools will also be important - otherwise they might be able to transmit it back to their parents, who could then in turn transmit it to their more elderly parents and to work colleagues and others.

“The government should give urgent consideration to continuing with some form of sustainable remote schooling for at least some sections of the school student population for some months to come,” said Professor Bampton.

“Only by making the exit strategy work will we stand a better chance of avoiding a second wave of the pandemic – and further damage to the economy and to jobs,” he said.

The new technologies and strategies will not only help to combat the current pandemic. If properly developed and deployed, they should also help protect humanity from future pandemics which are likely to increase in frequency as a result of climate change and other factors.

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