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HealthDay speculates about flu-fighting abilities of UVC light

Rating

2 Star

Categories

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Shining a Deadly New Light on Airborne Flu Virus

Our Review Summary

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

Full-spectrum ultraviolet C light (UVC) is already used to sterilize things like drinking water and surgical equipment. However, extended exposure can cause skin cancer and cataracts.

The news story reports a narrower spectrum, far-UVC light, was successful in killing a strain of flu virus and might have potential as a disinfectant. Previous studies by the same authors are cited that suggest this can be accomplished without the skin and eye damage seen with full spectrum UVC light.

This story does not mention that this test was conducted in a very small test chamber (not a room), and it’s unclear whether these results could be applied in “indoor public places” as the story implies.

More worrisome, the piece used speculative language from the start (“powerful” new disinfectant,” “easily kills”) and had a startling lack of information about the study. But, to its credit, this article mentioned the importance of preventive measures when it comes to the flu–something the TIME Health story (we also reviewed) lacked.

 

Why This Matters

We’ve been bombarded with not just a virulent flu this winter, but a full spectrum of flu season coverage ranging from speculative and suspect, to thoughtful and evidence-based. This one learns more to the former.

 

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Satisfactory

It’s mentioned “lamps with this type of UV light currently cost less than $1,000 … but (according to the study author) that price would likely fall if the lamps were mass-produced.” The article gets credit for addressing this issue, but the tone seemed a bit speculative.

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

Not Satisfactory

We’re told that exposure to far-UVC light — a very narrow and limited portion of the full ultraviolet-C spectrum — killed H1N1 virus (a common strain of the flu virus). Just how much light exposure is needed, and for how long, is not mentioned in the story.

It’s mentioned these results suggest public spaces could be sterilized using far-UVC lamps, but it’s not mentioned the results were obtained using a small chamber that was less than 12 by 12 inches; so it’s unclear whether the results can be reliably generalized to a larger space like a doctor’s waiting room.

Finally, the lead author is quoted as saying “far-UVC is likely to be effective against all airborne microbes, even newly emerging strains. However, without supporting data, that’s a speculative statement.

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

Not Satisfactory

Based on earlier in vitro studies by the same authors, it’s mentioned the antiviral effect can be achieved without harming human or mouse skin, or causing cataracts (cataracts and skin cancer are a  well-documented side effect of full spectrum UVC exposure). It’s not clear if these results would hold up in live subjects. No other side effects of far-UVC spectrum light are mentioned.

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

Not Satisfactory

Limitations of this in vitro study are not mentioned in the story (or in the published research paper).

Key issues to consider would be: 1) What percent of the H1N1 virus was killed? 2) How does the dosage response from a small chamber translate to real-world applications on a much larger scale?

These issues are not addressed in the story. However, we were encouraged to see the inclusion of this sentence: “The disinfecting success of initial experiments still need to be confirmed.”

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No disease mongering here.

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

Not Satisfactory

The lead researcher, as well as two physicians not affiliated with the study, are quoted. But, the story did not reveal the researcher’s conflict of interest, which the TIME Health story did disclose:

“Brenner says his team is working with a company to develop a commercially available version of the lamp..”

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

The story does well to quote one independent source who reminds readers that hand-washing, immunization, and antiviral medications remain important in protecting against the flu.

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

Not Satisfactory

We get the idea that UVC lamps are available and already used to disinfect surgical equipment. What’s not clear is if “far-UVC only” lamps are commercially available at this time.

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?

Not Satisfactory

The story discloses that the quotes from the lead researcher are taken from the news release. The inclusion of two more sources means the story just squeaks by on this rating.

Total Score: 3 of 10 Satisfactory

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