“Swoxid”, a Swiss clean-tech start-up proposes a reusable antiviral mask to combat the coronavirus outbreak

The COVID-19 outbreak has now reached all continents, except Antarctica. As of March 20th, 2020, the virus has spread to 182 countries and territories, infecting more than 266’000 people, killing over 11’000 since December last year. We are witnessing the pandemics case numbers continue to increase exponentially.

Health officials estimate that there will be no vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 for at least the following 12 months. Therefore, social distancing and personal protective equipment remains essential to fighting virus transmission, and flattening the rise of global pandemic. There is a fear that masks and other protective gear could lead to shortages for those who need them most: the first responders, doctors, and nurses treating coronavirus patients.

“Shortages are leaving doctors, nurses and other front line health care workers dangerously ill-equipped,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General.

Each month, it is estimated that about 89 million medical masks, 76 million examination gloves, and 1.6 million goggles will be required globally for health care workers to properly respond to the outbreak. In the same time, we see an increasing number of countries putting export bans on certain medical supply such as face masks in place. Public health officials are warning that these restrictive trade measures may put poorer nations more vulnerable to cope with this pandemic.

Swoxid, a pre-launched clean-tech start-up in one of the leading polytechnic university in Switzerland, anchored at the Laboratory of Physics of Complex Matter of Professor László Forró and led by Dr. Endre Horváth, believes their advanced filtration technology could help combat the spread of coronavirus. They have recently fabricated the first prototypes of a reusable antiviral mask.

Their technology is based on an innovative nanoporous aerogel composite membrane which—upon solar or UV irradiation—renders contaminated masks safe by inactivating infectious disease-causing biological agents such as bacteria and viruses.

Their innovative filter combines three important functions in one: small pore size to filter out viruses; anti-viral gold-silver-copper particles; and it is sterilized by exposure to UV light, enabling reusability.

Illustration: Electron microscopy image of Swoxid nanoporous anti-viral air filter surface with the sketches of selected bacteria and viruses to be filtered (left image). 30×40 cm Swoxid nanoporous ceramic filter (right image), from which the active part of the personal mask is tailored.

The pores of their patented ceramic filter are smaller than 100 nm. The size of the COVID-19 corona virus is somewhat larger, 120 nm, and would become stacked within the pores of the filter. Recently, the researchers have shown that their filter illuminated by UV for couple of minutes, by creating reactive oxygen species, kills all living microorganisms.

According to some health experts, the currently used disposable face masks do not block all pathogens, and do not inactivate the viruses. Because transmission routes and the survival time of the virus on different surfaces are not entirely discovered yet, it may be that used and discarded masks can even become a vector for disease if the virus survives on the disposable mask. Therefore, easily sterilizable and reusable masks with antiviral properties could provide a potent prevention tool against the COVID-19, and other coronaviruses that have evolved into more severe illnesses such as SARS and MERS. It is estimated, that the Swoxid light-sterilizable mask may be reused more than 1000-times. The proposition of Swoxid clean-tech start-up not only addresses an impending mask shortage crisis, but would reduce the environmental and public health issues related to the millions of masks discarded daily worldwide outside of medical environment, where infectious and hazardous medical waste is properly treated and disposed

Illustration: photo of one of the inventors wearing the prototype of the innovative Swoxid nanoporous, reusable and light sterilizable antiviral mask (image on the left), Photo of the prototype of Swoxid mask with the 3D-printed frame (top right), and under 365 nm UV illumination, where the filtered germs are inactivated via reactive oxygen species formed in the photocatalytic reaction in the mask (bottom right).

The Swoxid air filters are not commercialized yet, but the special patented aerogel raw material which the filters are composed of can be produced in scalable quantities. Only in laboratory conditions, today it could allow a filter production capacity about 100-200 m2/week, enough to fabricate 40’000-80’000 reusable masks monthly. If 3-times sterilized and reused daily for a month duration, this would be enough to replace 120’000-240’000 disposable masks monthly. But in the opinion of Dr. Horváth, on an industrial production line, there is no upper limit.

This sterilizable and reusable mask may be the latest protective gear of tomorrow to prevent and mitigate virus outbreaks.

The Swoxid-developed nanoporous filters can be used for other purposes, like air conditioners and water purification. Dr. Horváth and his collaborators have extensively verified its effectiveness for drinking water sterilization. The water filter panel has been successfully lab tested in Switzerland and South Africa. In both milieu, air or water, the principle is the same: photocatalysis upon UV illumination decomposes organic materials.

The whole team will endeavor to put these reusable masks on the market in the coming months. The Swoxid-team is now seeking research and industrial partners, foundations willing to help and investors active in health care to speed-up the R&D and commercialization efforts of their reusable anti-viral mask.

Contact: [email protected]