Canadian researchers are putting the finishing touches on a face mask that will destroy, not spread, at least three different flu viruses.
The new and improved surgical masks, and first of their kind in the world, will very likely work on the coronavirus, said biomedical engineer Prof. Hyo-Jick Choi at the University of Alberta.
The masks are expected to be on the market as early as 2021.
His lab hasn’t tested the coronavirus yet because it’s difficult to get a hold of, but the masks have decimated comparably “hard and big and strong pathogens,” Choi told HuffPost Canada.
The special ingredient? Salt.
Choi’s team has developed a sodium chloride coating for both surgical masks and more heavy-duty N95 face masks.
When an infected person coughs or sneezes, liquid droplets carrying the virus spray into the air (ew, cover your mouth). Conventional surgical masks only protect the wearer from large droplets. The problem is that viruses, like the coronavirus, also travel through tiny aerosols that can leak through the mask, infecting you.
N95 masks are better at protecting against aerosols, but they’re hard to breathe through and more expensive.
A virus can live on a mask for up to a week, the researchers say. And if a mask is not handled carefully — say you touch the mask itself, wear it for way too long, put it in your pocket, or don’t wash your hands after — the virus can be passed on to someone else.
That’s where the salt coating comes in, Choi said. When droplets of any size land on a coated mask, the salt dissolves in the liquid and begins to evaporate, forming sharp-edged crystals.
“The crystal pokes through the virus particles and completely destroys it,” said Choi.
Watch: A timeline of Canada’s confirmed novel coronavirus cases. Story continues below.
The coronavirus, originating in Wuhan, China, has captured the world’s attention in recent weeks. As of Wednesday, there were 24,554 confirmed cases globally and a total of nearly 500 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. There are five confirmed cases in Canada.
Choi started developing the mask about five years ago, when he noticed other researchers were focused mainly on vaccinations. He said when it came to the mask, a major challenge was finding a way to kill the virus quickly, as humans have a tendency to touch their face, and potentially the virus, every four minutes.
The salt-coated masks render the virus inactive within five minutes, and completely destroyed in 30 minutes, Choi said.
The project is funded by Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that supports Canadian research. When the SARS outbreak occurred in 2003, math researchers affiliated with Mitacs developed the equation that identified the necessary quarantine period.
Choi said after SARS, he remembers scientists warning that another pandemic would occur. When he learned about the coronavirus outbreak, he thought, “Wow, their prediction is correct.”
There is a silver lining.
“It is really sad because of all the people dying,” said Choi. “But this is also a great chance for us to prepare for the next outbreak.”