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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
No disease mongering here.
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..”
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.
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.
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).
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.