Dr. David Brenner has discovered that a certain kind of light can kill airborne viruses, including some types of coronavirus.
As the director of the Center of Radiological Research at Columbia University, Brenner has been studying ultraviolet light, also known as UV light, as a potentially life-saving weapon against the spread of viruses.
UV light is known for its germicidal killing properties and is used to clean equipment and hospital areas. But it is also dangerous to humans because it can penetrate the skin and cause cancer, as well as cataracts.
However, that's not the case with a narrow band of UV light called far-UVC light.
"It can't get through any of the living cells of our skin," said Brenner. "That's why it's safe for human exposure."
Earlier this year Brenner was testing the ability of far-UVC light to kill airborne viruses in preparation for the upcoming flu season. When the coronavirus outbreak hit, Brenner ran additional tests to determine whether far-UVC light kills those viruses in the air as well.
"We saw we can kill 99% of the virus with a very low dose of far-UVC light," Brenner said.
Brenner's team has already tested two seasonal coronaviruses, and is currently testing the current strain, SARS-CoV-2.
"There's no reason to believe it's going to be different from these results," he said.
Lamps using far-UVC light are currently in production and waiting for Food and Drug Administration approval. Brenner envisions them being used in public places like airports and train stations, as well as in hospitals and schools.
"Right now there is no real approach to trying to reduce the amount of viruses in a room where people are and somebody sneezes and coughs," he said. "If you could actually decontaminate the air around you pretty quickly, that would be a real plus."
Cy Herring, whose company manufactures far-UVC lights, said his company is "working around the clock to meet the current demand."
"We're trying to first address the immediate need to impact people's lives and spread out to public areas where a lot of people gather to prevent the spread of airborne disease," said Herring, president of Illinois-based Eden Park Illumination.
Although the lights probably won't be available until the end of the year, USHIO America, which also manufactures the lamps, says it has donated some for use in hospitals in Japan.
"It's a huge invention," said USHIO America COO Shinji Kameda, "as long as the light is exposed this circumstance is safe."
What to know about the coronavirus:
- How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
- What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
- Tracking the spread in the U.S. and worldwide: Coronavirus map
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