Houston Researchers Roll Out COVID-Killing Machines

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Source: Houston Chronicle

The George R. Brown Convention Center was built to hold Houston’s biggest crowds, but during the pandemic its halls have grown quieter. In reviving the center, Houston First squared off with a problem facing all local venues — showing the public they’re safe.

To address the problem, the local government corporation created to operate the city’s convention and performing arts facilities launched a public education campaign in August and spent about $30,000 on three mobile air filtration units for the convention center’s general assembly space, which is often used by businesses for presentations. The units, installed in September, add a layer of security for guests, said Michael Heckman, the group’s acting president and chief executive.

“Any level of added confidence that we can give to the public during this time is incredibly important,” Heckman said. “And I think once people understand the level of sophistication of this technology they’d be highly impressed, as we were.”

The filters are the product of Houston’s Integrated Viral Protection, an enterprise formed by engineer and real estate developer Monzer Hourani based on technology developed by researchers at the University of Houston.

In its marketing materials, IVP calls its filtration system “an affordable, mobile, plug-and-purify device” that is “proven to immediately eliminate 99.999% of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) virus on contact.”

It says the device, which has a patent pending, is “FDA compliant to Enforcement Policy for Sterilizers, Disinfectant Devices and Air Purifiers During the Coronavirus Disease - 2019 (COVID-19) Public Health Emergency … and permitted by the FDA to be sold during the Coronavirus Disease.”

Yet while IVP has publicized the results of third-party testing, which verify the high rate at which its products can kill the virus, the company’s claims regarding transmission reduction may be a step too far, said Katharine Van Tassel, visiting law professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law who specializes in FDA policy. She said the FDA is allowing industry to self-regulate amid the pandemic so long as their innovations “pose no risk.”

“Here, the risk would be that people would think they can sit in a room with someone who may be asymptomatic and think that they may be risk free,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the FDA said the agency couldn’t comment on specific products.

Filter and kill

Hourani formed the company in April and partnered with three manufacturers in Texas, Mexico and Canada. The company said it has sold more than 500 units to-date.

A patent is pending for the innovation, said Dr. Garrett Peel, founding partner at IVP and coresearcher on the project. To filter the air, scientists developed a network of forces that pull viruses into the units, where a nickel mesh catches particles and kills them with a heat that can reach nearly 400 degrees. The heat within the unit does not warm the surrounding air — a point of pride for its creators.

The devices range from $3,000 for smaller in-home units to $19,500 at the larger end. IVP said it was offering deep rebates for institutions buying multiple units and for those deploying in areas for public benefit, as with schools and places of worship.

On the larger end, the company’s V1 unit circulates air in a roughly 2,500 square foot space between eight and 10 times an hour. The smaller units clean the air in a 1,000 square-foot room in 15 minutes.

In addition to the novel coronavirus, the technology also kills other viruses and airborne pathogens like anthrax, Hourani said. He added its versatility could be particularly important if the coronavirus continues to mutate into new vaccine-resistant strains. IVP only claims it can kill viruses that enter the filters, not those that may linger in the air and are not drawn to the filter.

And we could be in for a rough winter without some intervention, Hourani said. Indoor heating and cooling units pick up coronavirus particles and blow them around a building, he said, so the contagion could surge anew over the winter like it did earlier in the pandemic.

“It’s coming back and it’s going to be worse,” he said.

In the Houston area, units have been installed in Galveston ISD buildings, and Baytown is also deploying units in its public buildings, Peel said.

“Our focus is the humanitarian effort,” Peel said. “We want to get this around the world quickly.”

Other pandemic-era inventions, such as UV light devices, require people to leave the room and, while they kill viruses on surfaces, they are not as effective at treating the air, Hourani said. Most HEPA, or high-efficiency particulate air filters, remove particles through holes still big enough to let coronavirus through, he said.

Despite the creation, Hourani said people gathering still need to wear masks. From a clinical perspective, air filtration devices like IVP’s can be used as an added layer of protection in addition to other preventative measures, said Dr. Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of infectious disease for Baylor College of Medicine.

“At this point it’s unclear how much benefit it provides,” she said, “and it shouldn’t take the place of mask-wearing and social distancing. And frequent disinfecting.”

But with the added layer of security, Hourani said people might enjoy more of the normal activities they’ve been missing during the pandemic. Like hugging.

“We Americans are huggers. I’m a hugger,” Hourani said. “We hug each other, but we lost that.”

Read the article at Houston Chronicle here.