Far-Ultraviolet Light May Kill Airborne Coronavirus Without Harming Humans

Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images A bus is disinfected with ultraviolet rays as part of measures against the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Shanghai on March 12, 2020.

A professor at Columbia University and his team of radiation specialists have spent years perfecting ultraviolet lamps that kill drug-resistant bacteria as it floats in the air.  Now they believe the lights they invented are just as likely to cheaply and thoroughly destroy coronavirus that has been “aerosolized” in the vicinity of infected people who are coughing and sneezing.

Dr. David Brenner says his UV system has already been tested “against particles that were similar in size to those expelled from people by coughing and even normal breathing functions.”  His “powerful and inexpensive” virus-killing lights “could be used in hospitals and doctors’ offices as well as schools, train stations, airports and even aircraft.”


UV Light Has Long Been Known to Kill Germs, But UV Decontamination Systems Are Just Catching On

Photo by MICHELE SPATARI/AFP via Getty ImagesBrighten Mashau, an employee at the hospital, pushes an ultraviolet (UV) pulse lights disinfecting robot at the Netcare Sunninghill Hospital in Johannesburg on March 12, 2020.

Scientists have known for well over a century that ultraviolet light can be used to kill germs, but UV decontamination systems have only caught on in recent years. They are increasingly being used in water treatment plants both on land and on cruise ships as well as for sterilizing operating rooms and the interiors of ambulances.

The biggest catch with using germicidal UV lamps is that people can’t be directly exposed to the purplish lights while the decontamination process is taking place. That’s because of the nearly immediate eye and skin damage that occurs as well as longer-term health risks, including cataracts and skin cancers.

What makes Brenner’s lights different is that they are fine-tuned to one very narrow band of the ultraviolet spectrum called the “far-UVC,” which occurs around the 220-nanometer wavelength. (The ultraviolet sits between visible light and X-rays on the electromagnetic spectrum where it ranges between the 100- to 400-nanometer wavelengths. The “blacklight” that most people are familiar with from fish tanks and the crime scene flashlights that make evidence fluoresce into view utilizes harmless UV-A ultraviolet light, which occurs in the “near UV” band between 315 nanometers and 400 nanometers.)

PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP via Getty ImagesA member of the forensic section of the French gendarmerie uses a UV lamp as he looks for evidence on a garment in a laboratory.

In experiments carried out during the past six years, Brenner’s team at the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Medical Center determined that “very low doses” of light from the far-UVC not only “inactivates” airborne viruses but also kill off the drug-resistant bacteria which are known collectively as “superbugs,” as well as influenza and tuberculosis, all without the human health hazards associated with the previous generation of UVC lamps.

Brenner says that’s because the far-UVC “only has a very short range in biological material, so that it cannot penetrate the dead-cell layer at the surface of our skin, nor can it penetrate into our eyes, so it can’t reach or damage any living cells in our bodies. But, it can penetrate and kill viruses floating in the air simply because viruses are incredibly small. In short, exposure to far-UVC light is safe for people, but potentially lethal for viruses in the air.”


Columbia University Launched A Crowdfunding Campaign to Raise Money for Definitive Tests

Since his far-UVC light quickly kills other types of viruses, Brenner believes it stands to reason that it should be equally effective against COVID-19; however, that is not the same thing as a scientific certainty, so Columbia University has launched a crowdfunding campaign to perform a definitive test using a sample of actual coronavirus.

As of Wednesday, Brenner’s fundraising effort had garnered just over $48,000 of his $50,000 goal for the test.

If the test proves out and Brenner can find companies to put his decontamination lights into mass production, he said they can be blended into ordinary lightbulbs and LED lights and used in existing fixtures.

“The big picture idea is that these lamps could be incorporated into conventional light fittings so that they would be very easy to install in public spaces such as airports, train stations, airplanes, etc. To us, it looks like one of the very few approaches that has the potential to prevent the spread of coronavirus, as opposed to curing it,” Brenner said.

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