Since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, global demand for protective face masks has soared. In many urban centers, face masks are required in tandem with social distancing and hygiene measures. While many from a wide spectrum of face masks are used, the most popular model is the N95.
However, researchers around the world are looking for ways to improve on this basic preventative measure, and, if reports are true, there may be something new in store for the future of protecting against coronavirus transmission.
It's tempting to imagine the world's population immune from the virus — not only via forthcoming vaccines, but also with futuristic "electric" masks capable of killing the virus upon mid-air contact. Researchers from at least two universities claim to have applied "electric" mask technologies capable of neutralizing coronaviruses, but it's best to wait for health authorities' endorsement.
'Electric' masks reportedly kill coronavirus particles
Coronavirus particles can attach to personal protective equipment (PPE) surfaces — lying in wait for a chance brush of the hand on its way to the mouth or an eye. But a team of researchers from Indiana University (IU) have recently published a study in a pre-print website that purports to demonstrate an electric fabric capable of killing coronaviruses.
Cut and sewn to fit, they claim this could be adapted into a functional face mask.
Low-level electricity disables viruses
Called "electroceutical" fabric, the new design involves a unique matrix of embedded microcell batteries capable of creating an electric field, and wirelessly generate low-level electricity where moisture is present.
Viruses may be electrically charged. Coronaviruses use electrostatic interactions when they attach to host cells, and subsequently self-assemble into an infective form.
However, they need to keep a stable structure to spread the infection. And IU researchers worked to exploit this electrokinetic vulnerability — in a bid to dismantle coronaviruses' ability to infect.
Six years of building foundational evidence lie behind this alleged power to eliminate a virus' ability to infect within a single minute of physical contact with the fabric, according to the pre-print study.
In short, exposure to a low-level electric field-generating fabric can kill coronaviruses, according to the study.
Seeking FDA approval for Emergency Use Authorization
Notably, this kind of fabric is already in use across a wide spectrum of antimicrobial wound care dressing kits.
The researchers claim the next step for "electric" face masks is to use data findings to seek approval via the FDA's Emergency Use Authorization program — to disperse the fabric for use in face masks on the frontlines of the fight against coronavirus outbreaks.
This idea relies on "V.Dox Technology," which is a proprietary dot-matrix pattern of embedded microcell batteries.
"This work presents the first evidence demonstrating that the physical characteristic features of coronaviruses may be exploited to render them non-infective following contact with low-level electric field-generating electroceutical fabric," said Chandan Sen, principal author of the study and director of IU's center for regenerative medicine and engineering at the university's school of medicine, according to IU's website.
"Our hope is that these findings will help Vomaris receive FDA Emergency Use Authorization and that we can utilize this fabric widely in the fight against COVID-19, ultimately saving lives."
'Self-disinfecting' reusable protective face mask
Another reusable facemask from the Israel Institute of Technology reportedly heats up via a controlled process to destroy viruses that collect in the mask. Professor Yair Ein-Eli — the dean of faculty of materials science and engineering at the Institute — led the research group that created the technology, which heats an inner layer of carbon fibers spread consistently within the mask.
Interestingly, the blog post claims even a mobile phone charger can supply the low current of 2 amps needed to heat the layer of fibers. Once heated, the fabric is argued to destroy the viruses, according to the Institute's website.
The blog post also says a patent was submitted in the U.S. on March 31 — and that the researchers are already in talks with several commercial and industrial companies about manufacturing the new mask on a larger scale.
Not the first 'virus-killing' masks to the coronavirus crisis
Of course, several other masks are making the social media rounds purporting to — by mechanical work or electricity — eliminate coronaviruses from the small environment inside a face mask.
This one, called the "Purely Air Purifying Respirator" has an online presence going back to at least July 2017, pre-dating the pandemic. Combined with the redundant name, pre-dating the outbreak is more than enough to cast serious doubt on its effectivity against the virus.
Another one that looks a lot like 3D-printed DIY masks from Italy has frequented Facebook and Twitter. In a reply to this object, the user claims a medical facility in Delhi and officials at a Mumbai Hospital have endorsed the DIY mask — which the user says can reduce exposure to airborne particles. Presumably, they mean coronavirus particles.
However, even with the "coronavirus-killing" mask proposals from legitimate universities, we should lend caution to our confidence. It took a long time for Einstein's theory of relativity to achieve merit in the world of scientific consensus. Applied technology works faster — since it's generally based on widely-accepted theories of physics or materials science. But until we hear word from public health authorities like the CDC, the WHO, or the FDA — it's best to take these ideas with a grain of salt.