Virus-beating technologies

From electroceuticals to predictive touch tech, scientists and engineers are exploring radical solutions to protect us from Covid-19 and other virulent pathogens

Words / Dave Waller

Illustration / Aron Vellekoop Léon

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The SARS-CoV-2 microbe is an incredibly effective piece of biology. Take, for example, how it disarms the body’s chemical warning system, deceiving sufferers into thinking they’re fine. For a virus, that’s brilliant: it means that, rather than isolating in bed straightaway, people keep circulating and introducing it to new hosts, thus boosting its chances of proliferating.

However, if you measure the impact on humans, it has been profound. The virus killed more than 1.5 million people in 2020. It left millions of others with long-term health complications, grounded the global aviation industry, closed everything from borders to barbers, ruined businesses across the globe, and helped turn traditional working assumptions – like the need to have offices – on their head.

Of course, all the tragedy and upheaval brings plenty of examples of human ingenuity in response. While most people are limited to donning a mask, staying home, and busying themselves with Zoom meetings, the brightest minds of academia and the private sector have stepped up with a wealth of innovative concepts to help fight the pandemic – and any that may follow in future.

D“I’ve seen many of my science colleagues repurposing their understanding and trying to contribute,” says Dr Chandan Sen, director of the Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering at Indiana University. “Their non-conventional approaches could be a massive plus for the overall management of pandemics.”

Bug-busting biophysics

Dr Sen knows this first-hand. Long before Covid-19 first reared its head, he and his team developed a groundbreaking technology to help prevent infections in wounds. They conceived a fabric coated in alternating dots of silver and zinc, which, when made moist, created a small electrical field – enough to disrupt the bacteria’s own biophysics and wipe out its infectivity. In March 2020, as Covid-19 spread rapidly across a US critically short of PPE, Dr Sen’s team thought this technology could help.

“We were entering a phase when masks were starting to play a big role, so we tried to adapt our work to see how, upon contact, a coronavirus would behave in contact with the textile,” says Dr Sen. “We found it substantially lost infectivity.”

While this “electroceutical” solution hasn’t yet been tested on the Covid-19 microbe, masks using the technology are now commercially available, marketed by Dr Sen’s commercial partner company, Vomaris, as V.Dox technology.

It’s certainly a promising approach. One thing that makes viruses particularly hard to fight is their ability to mutate and evade inoculation. Yet an electroceutical solution like V.Dox should, in theory, remain effective, no matter how a virus changes. “Every microbe has biophysical properties, which are absolutely necessary for its existence,” says Dr Sen. If we can disrupt those, we should be able to take it down.”

Anti-microbial coatings

Over at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Microbiology and Infection, researchers took a similar stance – and developed and patented a very different technology. Now commercialised as NitroPep, it bonds a spike-like anti-microbial coating to steel, rendering any treated surface bactericidal. While it goes unnoticed by human touch, its positive charge attracts the negatively charged viruses, fatally damaging bacteria by rupturing its outer membrane.

NitroPep was trialled for a year on a Royal Navy ship, on surfaces such as door handles, push plates and grab rails. It removed more than 95% of bacteria such as E.coli and MRSA. It also proved effective in the air conditioning units on trains. Like Dr Sen’s electroceutical innovation, it could prove broadly effective – with minimal disruption.

“It doesn’t require a change in behaviour, it just sits there and kills whatever lands on it,” Felicity de Cogan, research fellow at the University of Birmingham, and NitroPep founder, told the Financial Times.

Touchless controls

Heathrow airport, meanwhile, is trialling a number of pioneering technologies, including germicidal UV cleaning robots, which use ultraviolet rays to quickly kill viruses and bacteria at night. It has also fitted UV handrail technology to escalators to ensure continuous disinfection, and self-cleaning anti-viral wraps to security trays, lift buttons, trolley and door handles.

The airport’s innovation team is also testing ways to create a touchless self-service check-in: including a UV arm that moves across the screen and cleans it, and a screen mirroring solution, in which passengers can operate the check-in machines from their phones.

There’s a strong logic to this technology: reduce contact and you reduce contagion. Engineers at the University of Cambridge, in partnership with Jaguar Land Rover, are trialling a pioneering “predictive touch” tech, which uses artificial intelligence and sensors to infer a user’s intent in real-time and predicts which part of the display they are going to touch.

In tests, the technology was able to reduce interaction effort and time by up to 50%. It could be used anywhere from self-service machines in airports and train stations, to ATMs and self-service supermarket checkouts.

Broad spectrum solutions

There are, of course, challenges here. The path of science is slow, and ideas in that world take a long time to mature, and the world of virology is no exception. No scientist wants to rush an idea to market any faster than the regulators would let them.

Yet the future will likely throw humans into an on-going relationship with these pathogens, and Covid-19 has shown, in the most painful terms, the cost of being unprepared. The world needs a suite of technologies that are broadly effective, with the minimum of disruption, for the time it takes new vaccines to be developed, tested and rolled out.

“These threats are just going to keep coming at us. As scientists, our job is to have our society’s back,” says Dr Sen. “If we’re thinking of stockpiling anything for an unknown pathogen about to hit us in the future, we’ll have to focus on those solutions that have a spectrum of usage, across a range of microbes. I’m quite confident we’ll be far better prepared next time.”

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“These threats are just going to keep coming at us. As scientists, our job is to have our society’s back“