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A face mask that can kill coronavirus on contact is in the works

Published May 18th, 2020 12:38PM EDT
Coronavirus Face Masks
Image: Carlos Tischler/Shutterstock

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  • Researchers are designing face masks that would include an outer enzyme membrane capable of killing the novel coronavirus.
  • The enzymes would interact with the virus’s spike protein that lets it latch on to human cells and multiply.
  • The face mask would not eliminate the risk of a COVID-19 infection, as face covers alone aren’t enough to stop the virus.
  • Visit BGR’s homepage for more stories.

Early on, we were told face masks weren’t necessary, but as more evidence came in, it became clear that we should all be wearing masks. Talking loudly and singing are enough to emit tiny droplets that may be invisible to the naked eye, but they can contain viral loads that are potentially infectious. The CDC revised its guidance on masks a few weeks ago, advising people to wear any sort of face cover if medical face masks and respirators aren’t available in stores.

Wearing masks while indoors is advisable, although the masks aren’t perfect. They can’t offer total protection. Touching your eyes, nose, or mouth after handling the mask, or while using it, is risky, as the virus can be present on all sorts of surfaces you’ve touched, including the mask. But researchers are now working on a face mask that would be able to kill the SARS-CoV-2 virus on contact.

Researchers from the University of Kentucky are working on an outer face mask layer that could include a membrane featuring enzymes that would be able to capture and kill the virus. The enzymes would attach to the SARS-CoV-2 component that binds to human cells — the protein spikes — and separate them. The virus would be killed on contact.

“The novel coronavirus is covered in club-shaped ‘s-protein’ spikes, which give it its crownlike, or coronal, appearance,” chemical engineering professor Dibakar Bhattacharyya told Newsweek. “The protein spikes are also what allows the virus to enter host cells once in the body. This new membrane will include proteolytic enzymes that will attach to the protein spikes of the coronavirus and separate them, killing the virus.”

Bhattacharyya, the director of the university’s Center of Membrane Sciences, secured $150,000 to work on the idea. He said it would take six months to create and test the membrane mask.

Antiviral face mask technology from the University of Kentucky. Image source: YouTube

The engineer explained that the mask would also remove the viral particles from the air, which could be an extra benefit of the mask. “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.”

The membrane would be very thin, and users could breathe “very easily” while wearing it, he said. The masks could also change colors when the virus is detected. Others are working on masks that light up when they detect the virus. While all of that sounds great in theory, the researchers will still have to prove the masks are safe to use and find ways to make them broadly available. Also, there’s no telling how much such a mask would cost, and whether it could be reusable.

That said, face masks do not offer complete protection, and you shouldn’t let your guard down even if such COVID-19-killing masks ever become available. If the virus ends up on your mask, then it also lands on the rest of your face, which is still exposed. It gets in your hair, on your clothes, and the surfaces around you. Simply touching your face is still enough to get infected, no matter how sophisticated the mask you’re wearing might be.

It goes without saying that you shouldn’t add any sort of virus-killing chemical to your face mask to kill the virus. Inhaling chemicals is dangerous and can do irreparable harm. The best thing to do is to handle the mask correctly, wash your hands thoroughly multiple times per day, and stay at home as often as possible.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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