After some contradictory information about the role of masks in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, the consensus is now that face protection can stop coronavirus aerosols from infected people.
Researchers at the University of Kentucky want to take things a step further by developing masks that not only block the virus from entering the body — but kill it too.
The team led by Dibakar Bhattacharyya, a professor of chemical engineering and director of the University of Kentucky’s Center of Membrane Sciences, plans to embed enzymes that attach to the coronavirus protein spikes, deactivating the virus.
The coronavirus is named after the crownlike spikes that protrude from its surface (‘corona’ means ‘crown’, in Latin). It is through these spikes that the virus injects genetic material into host cells in order to replicate. And by separating these spikes from the virus with the help of proteolytic enzymes, the coronavirus is destroyed — or so the thinking goes since this hasn’t been formally tested yet.
Face masks act are supposed to filter fluids that may contain viruses from the aerosols that we breathe. The efficacy of this protection depends on the quality of the material (denser cloth is better at filtering smaller particles) and on the behavior of the person wearing it. For instance, if a person touches their mask and then touches their nose, mouth, or eyes, they risk getting infected.
A mask that not only filters viruses but kills them upon contact could dramatically reduce the spead of the virus in public spaces.
“We have the capability to create a membrane that would not only effectively filter out the novel coronavirus like the N95 mask does, but deactivate the virus completely,” said DB. “This innovation would further slow and even prevent the virus from spreading. It would also have future applications to protect against a number of human pathogenic viruses,” Bhattacharyya, known to friends and colleagues as “DB,” said in a statement.
Other research groups across the world are also working on virus-killing masks of their own. Researchers at the University of Alberta have experimented with a salt coating for masks that kills the coronavirus within minutes. Others have turned to copper — a metal known to kill bacteria and inactivate viruses, rendering them harmless.
For now, Bhattacharyya and colleagues have secured a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop their masks. They claim that it would take around six months for them to finish designing and producing their membrane mask.
“At the University of Kentucky, we have great resources at our fingertips and many opportunities to engage in cutting-edge research across disciplines,” DB said. “Our researchers work together and lend their expertise to solve challenges for the greater good of humanity, not only at a time like this, but every day.”