In the Time of Ebola, We All Need a Little Robot

In San Antonio, Texas, there is a company whose fortune should be rising. This manufacturer develops and sells a machine that cleans infected spaces spot on -- kills all germs on every surface, on contact.
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In San Antonio, Texas, there is a company whose fortune should be rising. This manufacturer develops and sells a machine that cleans infected spaces spot on -- kills all germs on every surface, on contact. The rather small apparatus looks like a simple floor polisher, but the germ-killing robot is designed to quickly rid any room of dangerous viruses in just a few minutes.

Xenex was founded by epidemiologists Dr. Mark Stibich and Dr. Julie Stachowiak, in a lofty goal to eliminate the pathogens that cause infections in patients. More than 250 hospitals in the U.S. are already equipped with the machine, including the one in Dallas, where the first Ebola patient recently died, and where serious disinfection is now in dire need.

They call it Little Moe, it should in fact be named life-savior, for the main problem with a disease such as Ebola, besides the fact that it kills people in non-discriminatory ways, is the fast spreading and highly contagious state of the virus. The process only takes from 5 to 15 minutes per room, depending on the size, at a cost of about $3 per location.

After an infected patient has cleared a room, the most important measure is to disinfect and sanitize all locations where the sick person might have been confined, anywhere he was treated, transported, isolated. Even after the isolation period, a thorough and total scrubbing is mandatory, as the deadly virus can linger on surfaces and tools, even after the patient is long gone.

The independent robot rolls around on four wheels, like R2-D2 without the sound effects, except for a discreet popping sound as the gas is pulsing. All by himself in a solitary mission, using the eco-friendly gas xenon, thumping UV rays that destroy viruses, blasting 1.5 pulses per second up to 10 feet in every direction to kill-kill-kill viruses, such as Ebola. Light that is 25,000 times brighter than sunlight is created in each flash.

The shocking bright light scrambles and kills the DNA of bacteria in a fairly simple process. The Texas-based Xenex Company invented the robot in 2010, each costs a little over $100K. Sarah Simmons, science director, explains:

"DNA is the blood of life for the organisms on earth," she said. "(The light) messes up that book -- puts typos in that book (so) they can't read the instructions anymore and they can't replicate or cause infections."

Ebola is actually quite easy to zap, somewhat faster than some other infectious diseases such as superbugs that mutates and become immune to disinfection. Such technology, using UV rays to sterilize a room, has been around for decades, but Little Moe speeds up the process by using xenon in place of mercury, making it a quicker process.

After disinfection by xenon gas, a treated room remains at very low microbial levels indefinitely, meaning that there would be no need to repeat the decontamination procedure in a room, as long as no one has re-contaminated it. In America, more people die from a lack of hospital infection control than from AIDS, breast cancer, and auto accidents combined, at an estimated annual cost of $40 billion. Airplanes, cruise ships and a few professional sports teams have also used the robot for disinfection procedures.

In the tragic advance of the deadly Ebola virus in Africa, and now in other countries as well, the need for such machines appears more evident that usual. Melinda Hart, public spokesperson for Xenex says: "We're in conversations with the US. Department of Defense and some other international organizations to determine how to deploy our robots to Africa. We want to make sure we provide adequate support with infection prevention/protocols and training to ensure that the robots are used and protecting people."

Unfortunately, the robot can do nothing for humans, for now. It cannot enter the body and its internal system to cure any virus-infected patient. Maybe one day, with enough billions, a genius scientist will find a way to save the planet from all deadly bugs, such as Ebola and flu. In the meantime, the robot will pursue its endless goal of perfect sanitization.

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