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Pioneering new disinfectant to allow safe reuse of PPE

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Researchers at UNSW are developing new broad-use disinfectants that are lethal to viruses but delicate to fabrics.

A major challenge of COVID-19 has been the dangerous shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning products for healthcare providers and essential services workers. Desperate health workers are now reusing disposable, single-use masks, leading to shockingly high infection rates among healthcare workers, making up to 13% of all confirmed cases in Spain.

A critical new study led by Professor Mark Willcox, UNSW Science, is developing a new disinfectant that is lethal to viruses and other microbes, but gentle enough on fabrics that PPE and surgical masks can be reused safely.

“There are really no recommended disinfection practices for PPE, which is mostly designed to the single use. But with the pandemic there was a global shortage, so hospitals and other places were forced to use whatever disinfecting systems they could,” explains Professor Willcox.

Our research will develop a disinfecting technique that will allow us to safely reuse surgical masks and develop antiviral coatings for surfaces that can be rapidly translated into use.”

To achieve this, the new solution will need to reduce microbial loads by at least four logs – in other words going from 10,000 viable cells to one viable cell. In addition to the PPE shortage, current cleaning regimes to decontaminate public places and high touch areas are compromised by the lack of protection against the virus between cleans.

Professor Willcox and his colleagues are working to have the first new disinfection protocol out by the end of 2020. They are also developing an antiviral fabric for face masks, which they hope to release in the second quarter of 2021.

Though hugely valuable for hospitals and allied healthcare facilities, the new disinfectants and systems are being designed for use as widely as possible – such as in shopping centres, gyms, or the general workplace.

“The broader benefits will be safer PPE and safer face masks for everyone. We are concentrating on healthcare workers at first, but our masks and disinfectants will be available for all Australians in the future,” says Professor Willcox.

While protecting our vulnerable healthcare workers and limiting viral spread, a significant secondary benefit will be enhanced environmental sustainability, by greatly reducing the amount of single-use PPE that goes into landfill.

This project is one of 12 priority studies within UNSW’s Rapid Response Research Fund. Philanthropic funding will allow the research team to expand the types of PPE they are examining such as eye covers, clothing, and shoe covers, both to identify new ways of disinfecting, as well as adding new antiviral/antimicrobial functions that help prevent transmission.