Hospitals worldwide have become ground zero for the COVID-19 crisis. While the rest of us are forced to find innovative ways to maintain a normal life under lockdown, our brave healthcare workers heal the sick on the frontline of this biological war.
As hospitals become a battleground in the fight against this invisible enemy, it is not the doctors but the cleaners that form our offensive strategy. The dynamic hospital environment must be decontaminated after every activity in an ongoing process of mass disinfection as the workers in those buildings also deal with a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).
“It’s really unacceptable that in a first-world country like us that we’re having these shortages, especially with this whole talking about homemade masks,” said Dr. Richard Saint Syr, a physician in Bainbridge Island, in Washington State, USA. “It’s really horrifying that we’re sort of glamorizing that as a nice thing. It is, it makes people feel better, but the fact that we even have to think about that is really a sign of a disaster of public health policy.”
In his home, however, Dr. Saint has a different approach to cleaning the goggles and masks he uses in the infection-ridden outside world. Hidden behind a painting in the corner of his home office is a foot-long ultraviolet light treatment station that he leaves his PPE in front of to disinfect. Highlighting that it would be better to throw away equipment after each use —“That would be a perfect world if you really wanted to be amazingly protected”— but that with severe global shortages of PPE, UV-light presents an ideal passive method for disinfection and reuse.
“It just seems like a no-brainer to me,” Dr. Saint said. “Still, no one really seems to be talking about it. I really want it to get out there. This is a big deal. This could be a game-changer. I don’t know why the WHO (World Health Organization) isn’t recommending this. It’s cheap, it’s proven, you just have to sort of figure out the specs. It’s not new technology, it’s not quackery at all,” he continued.
There has been a lot of misinformation about UV light’s effect on the virus but it seems that there’s only one type of UV that can reliably inactivate COVID-19 and with human exposure “you would literally be frying people,” says Dan Arnold of, UK-based, UV Light Technology. “We had an inquiry from a private individual about our equipment, saying ‘Well, why can't we just get one of your UV lights and put it up on the exit to the supermarket – people can stand under it for a few seconds before they go in’,” he told the BBC in disbelief.
The sun emits three types of UV-light; UVA that makes up the majority of sunlight, UVB that is often credited with causing sunburn and skin cancer, and UVC that is even more harmful but is largely blocked by the ozone layer. We humans have not evolved to handle UVC exposure but neither have most of the viruses and bacteria that cause sickness, making UVC-light disinfection an effective tool in the fight against coronavirus.
UVC light has been used for more than 40 years in disinfecting drinking water, wastewater, air, pharmaceutical products, and surfaces against a whole suite of human pathogens. All bacteria and viruses tested to date respond to UV disinfection. Some organisms are more susceptible to UVC disinfection than others, but all tested so far do respond at the appropriate doses, according to the International UV Association.
At the University of Nebraska Medical Center, a room has been set up with two powerful UVC lamps and wires stretched across the space. Workers peg their PPE to the wires and when they leave the room the lamps are switched on to decontaminate the equipment, ready for collection and use by the same workers a few hours later. The UV treatments will allow masks to be used two or three times and the university is conducting assessments on whether they can handle more.
Traditional UV light technology is reemerging as an effective system for cleaning “things”. Even banks have increased the use of UV for decontaminating money as it moves through the banking system. For cleaning entire indoor spaces, rooms must be cleared of people and blasted by portable UVC lamps to supplement traditional cleaning, but a stationary lamp does not disinfect the areas in its shadow. This forces UV operators to continuously turn off, move the lamp, and turn it back on until it has blasted every dark corner. Enter the robots.
Robotics companies like Texas-based Xenex and Denmark-based UVD Robots have seen a huge rise in sales for their UV-light enabled robots that move around a room to zap the virus from every angle. "We had been growing the business at quite a high pace - but the coronavirus has kind of rocketed the demand," says UVD CEO, Per Juul Nielsen. "Italy has been showing a very strong demand," adds Mr Nielsen, who has already seen "truckloads" of their $67,000 robots shipped to China, in particular Wuhan. Sales elsewhere in Asia, and Europe are also up.
“Over the past month, our partners from all over the world, particularly in Asia, started ordering hundreds of robots. We’re working as hard as we can to fill all of those orders,” said Morris Miller, CEO of Xenex, about their $125,000 disinfecting robot. “We’ve been working seven days a week for the last three to four weeks. In addition, we’ve seen an increase in orders from existing hospitals for robots for their emergency rooms.”
These are difficult times but our technology is stepping up to the challenge, helping us find innovative new ways to protect people from this invisible enemy. As challenges arise, be they from natural disasters, terrorism, or killer viruses, our modern building technologies are finding new ways to protect occupants.
Crisis situations in all their forms push us to adapt, wars are well known as the strongest drivers of medical advances. Our current crisis promises to drive many things, such as cleaning advances like UV-light, into the mainstream and potentially our long-term future.