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A flu-killing UV lamp? TIME overreaches about the state of the science

Rating

2 Star

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This UV Lamp Could Prevent the Flu Virus From Spreading in Public Places

Our Review Summary

A scene from the promotional video Columbia University produced about the study.

Researchers in this study wanted to know if “far-UVC” light might kill H1N1, a common strain of flu virus, and therefore be used as a potential disinfectant.

In addition to this TIME Health story, we also looked at coverage of this study by HealthDay. We found Time’s headline to be a bit overreaching given that this study was performed in a small test chamber (smaller than a square foot) and it’s unclear whether the disinfecting results noted would even apply to a larger space.

Most importantly, both the coverage by TIME and HealthDay would have been strengthened by including supporting data from the study, as well as a discussion of the limitations.

 

Why This Matters

It’s been a rough flu season. And there is no cure for the flu, just preventive measures and symptom management. So any research that suggests that one strain of the flu virus can be killed without side effects to humans is bound to get a lot of attention.

This means news coverage — at the very least — needs to present supportive data and ask researchers directly about limitations. This is particularly true of controlled in vitro studies — studies like this small test chamber study which take place outside of living organisms — since they rarely correlate directly with complex living organisms in an uncontrolled and changing environment.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Satisfactory

The lead author of the study is quoted as saying “The lamp we’re using at the moment costs less than $1,000, and you can imagine that if it were put into general circulation, the price would drop dramatically … we don’t see cost as being a limited factor here.”

The first part of the quote gives a frame of reference, though “less than $1,000” is somewhat ambiguous. The second part also is speculative, so this is a barely passing satisfactory.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

We’re told: “… aerosolized particles of the H1N1 seasonal flu virus were released into a test chamber and exposed to very low doses of far-UVC light. The light inactivated the viruses with about the same efficiency as conventional germicidal UV light, while a control group of bacteria, not exposed to light, remained active.”

We’re also told previous studies by the same authors have shown that far-UVC light “can kill MRSA bacteria, a common cause of infections after surgery.”

However, it would be helpful to have data to support these claims, but that’s not provided.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

No harms of far-UVC light are mentioned; in fact, in the opening sentence we read:  “researchers have developed an ultraviolet (UV) lamp that kills influenza virus but isn’t harmful to human skin or eyes….”

But, again, we’re given no data regarding safety. We are not told if the previous skin or eye studies (which we’re told prove the safety of this approach) were done in the laboratory or on real humans.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The limitations of this in vitro study are not discussed.

We’re not told what percent of the viruses were killed. Nor do we get any sense of whether findings from a test chamber can be applied to large public spaces as the story headline implies.

In the published study the lead author cautions that the results need to be “confirmed in other scenarios.” It would have helped readers to include this.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No disease mongering.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

The lead author of the story is the only source cited, and we’re not told if he has any conflicts of interest. The HealthDay story we reviewed rated better on this criteria.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

No mention is made that there is no cure for any of the strains of influenza virus and, therefore, most interventions focus solely on prevention and symptom management.

This is important information to include when both your opening and closing paragraphs imply the far-UVC light studied might prevent the spread of the flu in public places.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

This is a just passing satisfactory–it’s implied that the product is not available yet, because the story mentioned the lead author “is working with a company to develop a commercially available version of the lamp.”

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

It is made clear the authors have studied this type of light in killing methicillin-resistant staph. aureus (MRSA), but it’s not clear if the current study is the first to apply far-UVC light to an influenza virus (in the published study the authors claim this is the first time far-UVC light has been assessed for inactivating aerosolized viruses).

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

While the story didn’t offer much more than what was stated in the news release, it does appear to contain original quotes.

Total Score: 4 of 10 Satisfactory

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