The COVID-19 pandemic has focused attention on solutions for decontamination, with disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizers now among the hardest-to-get commodities for many consumers. You may be wondering, as you scour your local grocery for that last bottle of Purell, are their other technology solutions to protect us from the virus? We can't help with your shopping needs, but we can consider, in the aftermath of the outbreak, how consumer attitudes toward sanitation will be changed and what companies should be thinking about to prepare.
Few good new solutions exist for killing the virus on surfaces or in air
Apart from alcohol-based sanitizers, traditional decontaminants like bleach and hydrogen peroxide, and of course good old-fashioned hand-washing, there has not been a great deal of compelling innovation on removing viruses from surfaces and the air. Antimicrobial coatings and textiles have been growing for consumer, industrial, and medical uses, but the vast majority aren't effective against viruses. However, there are some emerging options that could be:
- Researchers are developing so-called "multilevel antimicrobial polymer" technology that they claim is also highly effective against viruses, including coronavirus. These materials still need outside validation, and their cost is unknown, but through a combination of materials that prevent adhesion of germs to surfaces and moieties in the polymer that bind to and disrupt the surfaces of bacteria and viruses, it's plausible they could prove highly effective.
- Photocatalytic coatings that generate radical species to break down organic materials could also be effective against viruses, and some developers are making claims about their ability to kill coronavirus specifically. These coatings are generally best activated by UV light, meaning they're most effective in direct sunlight, but there's considerable work on modified additives that can be activated by visible light instead to make them effective indoors. However, as they break down organic materials indiscriminately, products made with these additives face durability issues, as they tend to break down the matrix they're embedded in. What's more, generating free radicals on or near the body could have potential negative long-term health effects.
- Air decontamination technologies like NanoPure that generate species like hypochlorous acid or hydrogen peroxide in vapor or aerosol form to kill microorganisms in the air as well as on any surface they might come into contact with. While typically used for one-time room-based sanitization, products that offer more ongoing treatment of homes and offices, or even personal mobile units protecting the space around a user, could be possible. However, here as well, be cautious about unintended negative health effects, particularly as hypochlorous acid can be an irritant with prolonged exposure. Applications like Battelle's hydrogen peroxide decontaminantion of N95 masks for reuse should be more promising.
Compounding the challenge, there are really no good ways to detect airborne or surface contamination. Despite a wide variety of compelling innovations for detecting whether an individual is infected with coronavirus, detecting viral contamination outside the body is still a largely unmet challenge. Companies should consider testing some of these emerging solutions and look into opportunities to improve on existing ones like UV decontamination but remain cautious about this space except as a longer-term research project.
Microbiome-based solutions could be more compelling
Most everyone has acquired newly rigorous hygiene habits, washing hands more often and more vigorously and carefully sanitizing homes and places of work. During an outbreak like the one we are experiencing now, these steps are necessary, and they can have benefits even in combating less dire (but still sometimes serious) diseases like the usual seasonal flu. However, such antiseptic habits can have unintended consequences in harming the vital microbiome that supports good health – perhaps most notably the skin microbiome, which appears to play a vital role in protecting the body from infection. Excessive hygiene measures could promote antibiotic resistance or even lead to increased allergies and other vulnerabilities.
Thus, if the wider use of antimicrobial products persists in the aftermath of the pandemic, a valuable approach could be to focus on products that actually help support the health and benefits of the microbiome in the face of the stepped-up onslaught that our "good bacteria" would now be facing. Of course, no one has taken this tactic yet, but examples that could be relevant include:
- Givaudan developing a novel prebiotic designed to protect the microbiome against novel stresses due to high blue light exposure. A product aiming a keeping the skin microbiome healthy in the face of more frequent hand-washing and sanitizing could similarly resonate with consumers.
- Brands like Aveeno already starting to promote skin microbiome benefits. As consumers become more familiar with the microbiome, the opportunity for products that benefit it will grow as well.
- Major ingredient developers like Evonik and Bayer forming partnerships to extend research capabilities. Having a strong technical underpinning will be necessary for successful products, for credibility with both regulators and users.
- Companies like BASF investing in skin microbiome models for testing. Microbiome analysis is a key emerging field in its own right, and understanding both the impact of new hygiene habits on the skin microbiome and the potential efficacy of new products will be strategically essential.
There is a lot of commercial momentum building in the skin microbiome, and any core expertise companies develop here will likely be applicable for other purposes as well. Those interested should take the opportunity to review the opportunities now to be prepared with solutions that can help meet the needs of the shifting personal hygiene landscape.