I look at the high-resolution images of the coronavirus all over the Internet and often think about the irony. In the 1960s, when scientist June Almeida first laid eyes on this new insidious predator that would one day bring civilization to its knees, she noted its crown-like shape resembled the corona of a star. Naturally, she named the new virus in honor of the source of all life here on Earth – the sun.
Now it turns out coronavirus’ namesake may also be our salvation.
For 4.5 billion years, a wavelength of Far-UVC light has been emanating from the sun, 222 nanometers, known but poorly understood. It’s not strong enough to penetrate our atmosphere, and so humans do not interact with the wavelength throughout the course of our lives. But over the last decade, physicists out of Columbia University began exploring the possibility that, while 222 isn’t strong enough to penetrate our skin or eyes, could it be strong enough to penetrate the tiny membranes of pathogens – including the coronavirus – and kill it?
The answer is an emphatic yes. Dr. David Brenner and his Columbia University colleagues announced the results of their research in a paper published last month in Scientific Reports. Not only does 222 kill many pathogens, including the coronavirus, but it is safe for human exposure.
When I first watched Dr. Brenner’s Ted Talk on 222 and read his research, my initial reaction was probably what you are thinking: Why isn’t 222 everywhere?
After all, 90 percent of us spend an average of 22 hours a day inside! If we are going to resume our normal lives, we need a ubiquitous solution to improve indoor air quality. We need a system to continuously clean the air and surfaces in restaurants, offices, movie theaters, schools – pretty much anywhere we spend time indoors – so that we can resume our normal way of life. The situation has become more dire with recent guidance from the WHO showing that aerosolized coronavirus droplets may linger in the air for hours.
I realized slow adoption was due mostly to lack of awareness and the need for more public advocates. We’ve been conditioned from our first day at the beach that we need to protect ourselves from harmful UV rays. That is true, but the sunscreen you slathered on your shoulders is to safeguard you from an entirely different spectrum. The sun has always been a mixed bag, providing us with a steady stream of Vitamin D and also harmful UV rays if we are not careful. 222 isn’t strong enough to penetrate our dead skin layer, but to a relatively fragile virus with no such protection, it is kryptonite.
The more I looked at potential solutions, the more I wanted to advocate for this technology to be universally adopted. I’m investing in and backing a company called Healthe because the private sector will have to commercialize 222 if we have a shot of not only beating back this pandemic, but preventing the next one.
I recently sat down with Healthe Founder and Chief Scientific Officer Fred Maxik to debunk some of the common misconceptions about 222 and discuss how this technology can help us return to some semblance of normalcy. Fred is a prolific inventor, holding 400 patents, and one of the world’s leading experts on harnessing the power of light to improve quality of life. His work has taken him to outer space – developing lighting solutions for NASA to use on the space station – and underground, to the mines of Chile, where his circadian lights helped coal miners combat the effects of confinement.
Below is a recap of our conversation.
How is Far-UVC light different from other forms of UV light that are harmful to humans?
For decades, we have been using UVC light to deactivate pathogens (i.e., destroy harmful bacteria and viruses). What’s new today is that Far-UVC light, also known as 222 nm, is a type of UVC light that is equally as devastating to those pathogens but has other novel factors – most notably, that it does not penetrate or damage the human body. Global research has shown that it is safe for humans.
The amount of Far-UVC light that we can be exposed to is regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). According to Maxik, even in an office where people are working 8-hour days 5 days a week under Far-UVC lighting, the amount of exposure would be well below the NIOSH threshold.
What are the applications for Far-UVC light?
Typically, when you sanitize a surface, you disinfect it, and it then becomes dirty once it is exposed to new germs. But Far-UVC light can treat the air and surfaces in the spaces that we occupy in real time, keeping them continuously clean. These spaces include everything from classrooms to airports, subways to offices, and hospitals to senior living facilities.
How do Far-UVC light products work?
In a nutshell, Far-UVC light can be deployed in the form of air filtration systems or lights that destroy bacteria and viruses like coronavirus, both in the air and on surfaces, in real-time, without harming human skin or eyes like other forms of UVC light do.
“I really want to use every tool we have to create environments that are safe enough for us to occupy, environments that are safe enough for us to return home from, and environments that reduce the spread of [COVID-19] and any other pathogen that confronts us.”
– Healthe Founder and Chief Scientific Officer Fred Maxik
If this is such a useful technology, why hasn’t it been implemented before?
Far-UVC light has been thoroughly studied by scientists for the past decade and a half, but has not been deployed commercially. It has taken a global pandemic for us to understand its far-reaching utility and to speed up its adoption.
Is Far-UVC light enough to end coronavirus?
While Far-UVC light is an incredibly efficient way to kill bacteria and viruses, it is one part of all the steps we must continue to take to stop the spread. Even as more and more places adopt Far-UVC light, each one of us should continue to wear a mask, wash our hands and take other precautions.
Maxik said we must look at all proposed interventions through a neutral lens and believe in where the science is taking us. We must explore, question, debate, and then ultimately implement proven technologies to get us back on our feet.
“Science should not be political.”
I can’t argue with that.