Engineers at Indiana University have proposed a novel type of face mask capable of generating a weak electric field, and in doing so, disrupt coronaviruses' ability to infect — with potential as a possible protection against the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for COVID-19.
"Coronavirus with intact infectivity attached to PPE surfaces pose significant threat to the spread of COVID-19," the researchers explain, a problem others have tried to solve with post-exposure sterilization for any personal protective equipment (PPE) which is to be reused. "We tested the hypothesis that an electroceutical fabric, generating weak potential difference of 0.5V, disrupts the infectivity of coronavirus upon contact by destabilising the electrokinetic properties of the virion."
The team used an electroceutical fabric dressing, already cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), made from polyester printed with alternating dots of silver and zinc, which together, generate the weak electric field. A respiratory coronavirus — but not, it must be noted, the specific SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic - was applied to both the electroceutical fabric and a "sham fabric" with no metal. The result: The coronavirus showed a loss of infectivity, suggesting the material could have benefit for PPE including face masks — and even for air purification or large-scale disinfection.
"This work presents first evidence demonstrating that the physical characteristic features of CoV may be exploited to render it non-infective following exposure to weak electric field generating electroceutical fabric," the team concludes. "The observation that lentiviral infectivity is also eliminated following contact with the electroceutical fabric contributes to the rigour of our central finding.
"Lowering of zeta potential of the CoV particles following exposure to the electroceutical fabric constitutes direct evidence supporting the contention that electrokinetic stability of the viral particle is weakened. Additional studies are necessary to characterize specific structural changes in response to exposure to the electroceutical fabric, and to connect such changes to loss of infectivity. In the meanwhile, this work provides evidence supporting the rationale to consider the studied electroceutical fabric, or other materials with similar property, as material of choice for the development of PPE in the fight against COVID-19."
The team's work has not yet gone through the peer review process, but comment from electrical engineer Mahmoud Al Ahmad in an IEEE Spectrum article on the topic shows cautious optimism. The paper, meanwhile, is available as as preprint on ChemRxiv under open-access terms.