Salt Lake Company Working On Mask That Can Inactivate COVID-19 Virus
Masks are widely considered one of the most effective tools for controlling the spread of COVID-19. But they’re not perfect. And even with a vaccine on the horizon, Dr. Anthony Fauci has said people will still have to wear masks for the foreseeable future.
One Utah company thinks it can make some improvements.
SINTX, based in Salt Lake City, normally manufacturers high-tech ceramics for things like spinal implants and knee replacements. But CEO and former orthopedic surgeon Sonny Bal said they discovered, almost by accident, that a chemical compound they use — silicon nitride — can inactivate certain viruses, such as the common flu.
“It’s an interesting set of properties,” Bal said, adding that bacteria can’t live on the surface of the material, yet it’s also safe to use an implant in the body.
The finding was notable, but not particularly useful to the company when first discovered about a year ago. But once the pandmeic hit, Bal said they realized they had something important on their hands.
“We tested [a silicon nitride solution] and found rapid inactivation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the one responsible for COVID-19, after only about a minute of exposure,” he said.
Now, the company is working on taking a powdered form of the material and coating fibers that can be woven into a face mask, which would either be disposable or reusable and washable, but with a disposable filter.
The next steps, he said, are to start developing prototype versions and eventually scale up production. But it’s a difficult process, requiring a machine that could produce the fabric consistently at a high speed and low cost, making each mask exactly the same.
“We've done some basic testing to make sure that particles don't come off, you're not breathing them in,” he said. “It's one thing to take mask fibers and incorporate silicon nitride, which we have done in the lab. The next step is a whole different set of technical issues.”
There are also certain regulatory hurdles the company needs to clear.
But if the process works, the mask could be a marked improvement from the average cloth ones most people use now, according to Kylene Kehn-Hall, a virology professor at Virginia Tech who’s been testing the material in her lab.
She said the mask won’t be able to replace the N95 — the current gold standard because of the way they filter air and seal around the mouth and nose. But the main advantage of a silicon nitride mask would be that if it were left on a contaminated surface, it could still be safe to use.
“People don't wash their mask as much as they should be,” Kehn-Hall said. “So if you have something in there that will inactivate a virus and not only SARS-CoV-2, but maybe other viruses and potentially even bacteria, I can see it being pretty useful.”
The mask will still have to fit well to truly be effective, closely against someone’s nose and mouth, added Ben Abbott, a professor of ecosystem ecology at Brigham Young University. It will also have to be comfortable, so people will actually wear it.
Bal said if the material shows promise, the company hopes to expand its use to other kinds of surgical gowns and protective equipment. As for a timeline, it’s also a ways away.
“I think the best time I can give you is as soon as possible,” he said. “Nobody's more anxious about it than I am. This is the most important project in front of our scientists.”