For some time now, most of us have been relying on face masks to filter out COVID-19. But what if there were masks that did something better, such as deactivating the virus? That’s the idea behind an innovative new antiviral face mask from researchers at the University of Kentucky (UK). They’ve developed a membrane for use in medical face masks that captures and deactivates the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. Those spikes — which many of us know from artistic renderings of the coronavirus — bind to host receptor cells as the virus invades a person and takes hold.
So how does this new membrane work? The material works initially much in the same way a standard N95 mask does, filtering out coronavirus-sized aerosols, up to 95% of airborne particles according to a study conducted by the researchers. But the new membrane adds an extra layer of protection against the pesky COVID-19 invader: proteolytic enzymes. These antiviral enzymes attach to the spikes, destroying them within 30 seconds, never giving the virus a chance to find and latch on to human cells.
According to the researchers, the new membrane-based masks have excellent breathability, and unlike N95 masks, can be worn for several days before replacement is necessary. And the new masks may not be exclusively used against the coronavirus; by changing the porosity and thickness of the membrane, masks could be created to filter out a variety of different types of particles. The researchers write, “The innovative development of smart filtration materials with low airflow resistance that can filter, capture, and deactivate aerosolized virus particles [is] promising to the development [of] new products that can protect against SARS-CoV-2 and a number of other human pathogenic viruses.”
You might expect that a COVID-stopping mask would come with a high price tag, but the production cost is relatively low: $0.63 per mask. This figure, according to the study, is based on the cost of materials and would make the new masks comparable in cost to existing N95 masks and other PPE options. So when will these membrane face masks be available to medical professionals and perhaps even consumers? The UK researchers don’t tell us that. We can only hope that it’s soon.