Wearing masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) can slow the spread of COVID-19. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone wear some kind of face covering in public places, especially where social distancing is difficult to maintain. And health workers are donning additional coverings, such as gowns.
Yet all such protective gear shares one significant problem: people still risk becoming infected with the novel coronavirus if they accidentally touch areas of the fabric that are contaminated with viral particles. So researchers are working to develop cloth that could inactivate or repel coronaviruses—ideally including the one that causes COVID-19—and other pathogens.
People can transfer infectious particles to their hands if they touch the front of a mask during use or when they remove gowns or other PPE, according to Chandan Sen, Director of the Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering at Indiana University.
He and his colleagues have been developing a way to render those particles and other infectious agents harmless. The team researches ‘electroceutical’ materials that wirelessly’ generate electric fields across the surface of the fabric,” Sen says. Those fields can disrupt the behavior of bacteria or viruses on the cloth.
They are one to two millimeters wide and spaced one millimeter apart. When the electroceutical material is dry, it functions as an ordinary fabric. But if it gets dampened—say, with saliva, vapor from a coughed up droplet or other bodily fluids—ions in the liquid trigger an electrochemical reaction. The silver and zinc then generate a weak electric field that zaps pathogens on the surface.
The researchers co-developed the material with the biotechnology company Vomaris Innovations in 2012. Last year they showed that the technology could be used to treat bacterial biofilms in wounds. A clinical trial is underway to further evaluate the fabric’s effectiveness as a Food and Drug Administration–cleared dressing for wound care, Sen says.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sen’s team tested its existing material on a different coronavirus strain that causes a respiratory illness in pigs and on an unrelated type of pathogen called a lentivirus.
“The majority of virus was not recovered from the textiles examined in this study,” he says. Sen responds that his team focused on sampling only enough viral particles to show that the fabric had rendered them unable to infect cells. The researchers recovered roughly 44 percent of the particles from the electroceutical fabric samples that had rested for one minute. And they retrieved 24 percent of them from the samples that had rested for five minutes.
The metal dots could be printed directly onto the front surfaces of masks, he suggests. Or an electroceutical fabric could be inserted between the front of a mask and the wearer’s face.