Apr 20 2020 Posted: 13:00 IST

As the world grapples with a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), Irish academics are exploring eco-sustainable solutions to decontaminate single use masks

Researchers and clinicians from Athlone Institute of Technology and NUI Galway have joined forces to tackle the global shortage of N95 masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) desperately needed by frontline workers and other healthcare professionals.

Offering protection from coronavirus, PPE needs to be carefully removed and disposed of after each use to prevent the spread of the highly infectious disease. Due to its material composition, PPE is extremely heat sensitive and not intended for reprocessing.

Conscious of this, Professor Neil J Rowan, Director of the Bioscience Research Institute at Athlone Institute of Technology, and John Laffey, Professor of Anaesthesia and Intensive Care Medicine at NUI Galway and Galway University Hospitals, are exploring ways to decontaminate PPE without destroying it.

“A key priority is making sure our frontline healthcare workers have the PPE they need to be protected against COVID-19. Unfortunately, the combination of supply chain challenges and unprecedented levels of global demand means that some hospitals are now facing PPE shortages,” explains Professor Laffey.

“Reprocessing of PPE using novel decontamination approaches is essential to protecting our frontline workers. Of course, these novel approaches must be assessed and validated to ensure that they are safe and effective to meet regulatory requirements,” he adds.

These eco-sustainable solutions, which were recently published in leading environmental journal STOTEN, harness the power of vaporised hydrogen peroxide (VH2O2) to neutralise COVID-19 and other contagions. Use of this gas has just been FDA-authorized for decontaminating N95 masks and a similar authorized approach is likely to be deployed in the Republic of Ireland.

Professors Rowan and Laffey’s research indicates demand has overtaken supply for vital PPE where there is a critical shortage for frontline healthcare workers. What is proposed are best solutions to ensure supply including provision for reprocessed PPE that would be safe and fit for purpose during this COVID-19 crisis.

“A pandemic foists untold and unexpected demands on society that includes provision or contingency planning for reprocessing PPE. The majority of existing in-house hospital and adjacent minimal processing technologies, as used in food industry, will not be effective for reprocessing PPE,” explains Professor Rowan, who is also an Adjunct Professor at NUI Galway’s School of Medicine.

“However, review of best evidence suggests that VH2O2 and possibly UV irradiation technologies for deploying within healthcare environment can be used to fill this gap and will be paramount to ensuring the safety of our healthcare workers during this public health emergency.”

Their vital research is being supported by ‘INSPIRE’, a programme led by Professors Martin O’Halloran and John Laffey, and composed of academics, clinicians and scientists from University Hospital Galway, the BioInnovate Programme and the Translational Medical Device Lab at NUI Galway, CÚRAM, the SFI Centre for Research in Medical Devices, GMIT and AIT’Software Research Institute and Applied Polymer Technology Centre. The INSPIRE programme has been met with much enthusiasm globally, especially from developing nations like Costa Rica and South Africa.

According to Professor Abhay Pandit, Director of CÚRAM: “In the absence of a vaccine, disease countermeasures must rely upon preventing or slowing person-to-person transmission.” He notes that despite increased efforts to protect frontline workers, there is still “a growing international concern” regarding the shortage of PPE, making ready access to suitable decontamination technology crucial.

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