Finding weapons to fight spread of COVID-19

  • Peter Eng, a research professor at the University of Chicago's Center for Advanced Radiation Sources, right, and engineer Mike Proskey, with prototypes of a device that uses ultraviolet light to disinfect N95 masks so they can be reused.

    Peter Eng, a research professor at the University of Chicago's Center for Advanced Radiation Sources, right, and engineer Mike Proskey, with prototypes of a device that uses ultraviolet light to disinfect N95 masks so they can be reused. Photo Courtesy Peter Eng

Updated 7/25/2020 8:13 AM

With health officials warning that COVID-19 could remain a danger for years, even after a vaccine is approved, researchers around the globe are looking into ways to keep the virus at bay.

The research involves looking into new techniques or modifying existing methods that have shown success in the past at neutralizing viral threats and sterilizing spaces.


This war is being waged on multiple fronts. Researchers continue finding ways to make the world a safer place, while some are working on medical treatments and still others ultimately on a vaccine that will eradicate the threat.

At the earliest stages of the pandemic, one of the greatest concerns was a lack of personal protective equipment for health care workers. A national stockpile had been depleted and states bid against one another -- and the federal government -- to purchase all types of equipment necessary to keep doctors, nurses and other emergency workers and hospital staff safe from infection.

"It's a continuing concern," said Peter Eng, a research professor at the University of Chicago's Center for Advanced Radiation Sources. "I started working with the University of Chicago Medical Center to find a way to disinfect N95 masks, which was unusual because these masks are intended to be disposable."

Eng's work focused on using ultraviolet light, specifically UVC rays, to kill bacteria and viruses that may have attached to the masks.

"We have a specialized device we built that cleans masks and can disinfect them in under a minute," Eng explained. "You could do this 100 times because it doesn't degrade the material."

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The masks are disinfected and returned to the staff member who originally wore it. His machine can clean up to six masks simultaneously. Eng hopes to create a larger version to handle more equipment.

But the device is built specifically to irradiate every surface point on the masks to ensure total disinfection. That's part of the reason UVC exposure wouldn't work in a wider setting, such as a restaurant or bar. The other reason, Eng said, is because UVC is the most dangerous type of ultraviolet light to humans.

"You're going to give everybody a really bad sunburn," he said about deploying UVC lights in open spaces.

There are UVC lights that can be installed in ventilation systems that work very well at eliminating bacteria and other germs that travel through those systems. However, Eng noted there's no indication all airborne COVID-19 droplets would be filtered through an indoor space's ventilation system, which means the air movement from heating and cooling systems could simply push the virus through a room without ever being filtered.

When it comes to sterilizing a room, though, hypochlorous acid is becoming a far more common disinfectant for many businesses.

The non-toxic compound can kill bacteria and germs almost upon contact. The reason you may not have heard of hypochlorous acid before is because you can't buy it in stores. You have to make it and it requires specific chemistry and equipment.


The half-life of hypochlorous acid is so short it essentially becomes useless after two weeks.

Companies, such as Force of Nature, offer at-home appliances and "activator capsules" of water, vinegar and salt to make the compound. The appliance electrifies the ingredients of the capsules, creating hypochlorous acid.

"It's as effective as bleach, but without the harm like bleach," said Force of Nature co-founder and chief marketing officer Melissa Lush. "Really, as soon as the pandemic started, we saw a huge increase in demand from regular household users and businesses too."

Airlines, restaurants, surgery centers and dentist offices have been using the disinfectant.

Rolling Meadows dentist Michael Errico explained why it's more effective than traditional manufactured disinfectants in a blog post on his practice's website.

"Germ surfaces carry a negative electrical charge, which results in a repulsion of the negatively charged hypchlorite ion (bleach) to the area of the germ surfaces," Errico wrote. "The hypochlorous acid (carries no electrical charge and) moves quickly, able to oxidize the bacteria in a matter of seconds while the hypochlorite ion might take up to a half hour to do the same."

The human body actually produces hypochlorous acid in blood cells, but not in enough abundance to neutralize the COVID-19 virus. Thus the need for a vaccine.

Health officials have said it could be years before an effective vaccine was approved for use against COVID-19. However, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday it had agreed to pay U.S. drug-maker Pfizer and a German biotech company called BioNTech nearly $2 billion for 100 million doses of a vaccine now in the second stage of trials.

Those doses could be available as earlier as December, according to media reports.

But vaccines can be tricky. And that's why it takes some time to ensure they work. Trials of vaccines happen in stages.

"This is like a molecular puzzle you're trying to figure out," said Dr. Emily Landon, head of the University of Chicago's infectious disease prevention and control program. "You need to go slow and steady because you don't want the vaccine to accidentally harm people."

Rushing through an unproven vaccine can wind up doing more harm than good. It's happened before, Landon said.

"You want researchers to take every step to make sure it is working," she said. "It takes a long time to come up with a vaccine for anything, and that's for safety."

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