If the coronavirus pandemic has shown us one thing, it’s how quickly things change. From the economies that almost ground to a halt to the ever-evolving guidelines on masks and methods of transmission, the world in August 2020 is a very different one from six months ago.
As scientists learn more and more about the disease, the role air plays in spreading the virus is currently under scrutiny. With a growing number of scientists calling for the World Health Organisation (WHO) to examine airborne transmission of coronavirus, the technology offered by an Irish company could become an important part of the arsenal used against the virus that has brought much of the world to a standstill.
Novaerus has developed technology that not only clears the coronavirus from the air but also kills it completely using a plasma discharge that essentially shreds the micro-organism, but is safe to use around children, the elderly and sick people.
It’s an important point. Other solutions can bring their own issues, such as the need for regular cleaning, or potentially harmful by-products released into the air. The Novaerus products can be used at home, in the office or classroom while people are present, and resemble small air purifiers.
"I don't really like the word 'purifier'; it doesn't really mean anything," said Novaerus's Michael Corr. "But I understand why the general public would use it."
Novaerus isn’t just reacting to the pandemic. Its devices have been in development for some time.
“In the air there are all sorts of contaminants; some of them are viruses, some are bacteria, there are spores, there are fungi, and they have different effects, most negative. Right now, everyone’s concern is viruses, and particularly coronavirus,” Corr said.
“We’ve always been a medical company. We were carrying out a methodical plan to become more than that and move into other areas. Then the pandemic came along and we became a back-to-work device.”
The company offers three different devices: the Protect 200, which is suitable for use at home, in ambulances, patient bedsides and other small areas; the Protect 800/900, useful for classrooms or shared offices, and other larger spaces; and the Defend 1050, which is aimed at operating theatres, hospital emergency rooms, wards, construction projects and other large areas.
“One of the most disappointing things about the pandemic is there’s a lot of people jumping on the pandemic bandwagon, and being careful how they say what their devices can do. In reality, they’re not tested and they’re not science-led,” said Corr.
He is careful not to name names, but Novaerus instead concentrates on its own qualification: independent verification that its technology works, and a track record of working all over the world, including in Wuhan where the virus first emerged.
The technology has been tested against a surrogate for coronavirus, known as MS2, that reacts similarly to Sars-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19. An independent laboratory in the US has tested the Novaerus technology and verified the results.
“We got a 99.99 per cent kill rate within 15 minutes,” Corr said. “We used their electron microscope, we were able to see the [virus] DNA prior to being exposed to our plasma, and after being exposed to the plasma, we ripped the DNA apart. We stressed it and pulled it around so much, it burst the DNA and it became inert, harmless pieces of debris.”
It means there is no cleaning needed, nor are there filters to be changed – in two of the three products Novaerus offers, at least. That eliminates another risk to staff who may have to maintain these machines.
In recent weeks, as schools prepare to return, Corr says there has been an increase in interest from people in education. One customer bought a device for his wife, who works as a teacher; Corr says others have expressed concerns about returning to school without dealing with the issue of air quality in the classroom.
While it would be easy to dismiss it as a sales pitch, the WHO conceded in July that the possibility of airborne transmission could not be ruled out, particularly in crowded, enclosed and poorly vented spaces. That followed the publication of an open letter signed by 239 scientists in 32 countries outlining the evidence showing that smaller particles can infect people and called for the agency to revise its recommendations.
As the colder weather approaches, and people begin to spend more time indoors again, those concerns may be amplified in the coming weeks.
Activity tracking ring
There are other, less expensive tech devices that could prove useful in the fight against coronavirus. Finnish health tech company Oura has found its sleep and activity tracking ring.
In the United States, the NBA has drafted the ring as part of its efforts to keep Covid-19 out of the tournament. With players ensconced in the NBA bubble in Disney World, Florida, where they are being tested regularly for coronavirus, having temperature checks conducted and remaining isolated from the rest of the world in an attempt to keep Covid off the court long enough to finish the 2019-2020 season.
Players have also been given the opportunity to wear the Oura titanium ring to keep track of any potential symptoms. The ring tracks a number of things, including activity, sleep and resting heart rate. But it also measures heart rate variability, body temperature and respiratory rate, and crunches those numbers into a daily “readiness score” that can help flag a Covid-19 infection before symptoms appear.
The idea is to establish a baseline for each person using the ring, and when infection – Covid or otherwise – occurs, it can highlight when your system is under strain.
The role of Oura as an early-warning system for Covid-19 was brought to the fore when tech entrepreneur Petri Hollmen was alerted by the Oura app that his readiness score – usually 80-90 – was hovering in the mid-50s. Having just been through a Covid hotspot in Austria, he decided to get tested for the illness, despite having no obvious symptoms. The positive result was a surprise, but it also kick-started a focus on the company that has propelled it into the spotlight.
The NBA isn't the only one taking the Oura ring's potential seriously: Las Vegas casino operator Las Vegas Sand, which owns the Venetian and the Palazzo on the Strip, gave the rings to 1,000 of its 9,3000 employees as part of a pilot to see if the technology could help it keep Covid-19 in check. If successful, the company said, it would give the €300 ring to all employees.
The Finnish company is capitalising on the opportunity, and has partnered with major research institutions such as the University of California, San Francisco and West Virginia University, to add to the growing body of research on illness detection, symptom profiles and recovery from Covid-19. The pilot includes a health risk-management platform (HRM) platform that is designed to help monitor illness in the workforce
The opt-in scheme sees people choose to voluntarily share relevant data with an employer administrator through a company-wide dashboard. The dashboard aggregates and analyses key sleep, activity and health insights with a view to detecting illness early and understanding symptoms.
It is not just about Covid, although the initial research is focusing on the detection of the disease. Such platforms could be used in future to help predict and possibly contain the spread of other infectious diseases, or even warn of the spread of standard seasonal illnesses that can rip through workforces.
Oura isn’t the only device that measures heart rate and other indicators that could flag a Covid infection. So it seems then that there are opportunities for other wearables companies to establish themselves as a potential weapon in the war on disease, catching the public imagination.
Fitbit, for example, has been carrying out similar research into the opportunities offered by fitness trackers in detecting illness. Its newest device, Fitbit Sense, which was announced this week, measures skin temperature, heart health with ECG, as well as stress levels – an issue in the current pandemic – as well as ways to help reduce that stress.
It won’t be the only one measuring heart health. The Apple Watch now includes an ECG function, as does Withings’ Move ECG watch. The device looks like a regular watch, doesn’t require charging, but will keep an eye on your activity and allow you to conduct an ECG on occasion.
For Withings, the pandemic has led to a new focus on health tech that could prove a game-changer for the industry.
The health tech company has been plugging away with its smart health devices for years; the pandemic may be the opportunity it needs to bring it to the fore.
There are some products that are more obviously of use, such as Thermo. The smart temporal thermometer can be used to take a person’s temperature without making contact with the skin. For parents struggling with standard thermometers, it provides a way to take temperatures without disturbing a sleeping child; in the current pandemic, the contactless nature of the device plus the ability to keep track temperature readings over time through the app makes it even more appealing.
The device, which claims medical-grade results, uses 16 infrared sensors to take temperature readings from the forehead, with more than 4,000 measurements taken. The reading appears on the Thermo’s display and is also synced automatically with the Withings app, with up to eight users capable of being tracked both on the device and the app. The temperature alerts are colour coded too, so you can see the severity of any fever.
Its Scan Watch, which is set for release in the coming weeks, will bring in the ability to read oxygen saturation in the blood – another indicator that Covid-19 can impact.
"We are seeing a new interest in very different areas. First from a lifestyle perspective, it's true that since the lockdown started, the beginning of the second quarter overall we have seen an increase in sales of our consumer products compared to last year," said Lucie Broto, head of marketing for Withings.
That includes activity trackers, connected scales, sleep trackers, even smart blood pressure monitors.
“We believe this is coming from the fact that people being locked down want to take care of their health and monitor their health. They are being careful about their health and weight, keeping a healthier routine, keeping track of their activity,” Broto said. “We’ve also seen an interest in blood pressure monitors. People who have chronic disease, we know there is a strong comorbidity with Covid. So the ability to monitor daily in a very easy way with devices like ours, that allow you to share easily with your doctor, we’ve also seen a strong interest in that.”
Withings has also had a number of requests to use its products in research programmes, underlining its potential for the medical industry.
Will the current interest in healthtech continue to spur the industry? Researchers seem to think so. According to a note from ABI Research, new deployments and studies during the pandemic will boost the healthcare wearables market – including blood pressure monitors, continuous glucose monitors, pulse oximeters and electrocardiogram monitors – to 30 million shipments in 2020, and more than tripling that to 104 million shipments in 2025.
But more could be done.
"More wearable and healthcare companies need to look into how a variety of different wearable devices can help either by tracking the spread of the virus in different regions to provide information on locations affected, or by remotely monitoring patients to reduce the amount of interaction between them and healthcare professionals," said Stephanie Tomsett, wearables analyst at ABI Research. " Not only will this help with the immediate issues with Covid-19 but will also help with any future healthcare-related outbreaks and mitigate recurrence of the pandemic in second and even third waves."