Scientists developed anti-viral fabric for coronavirus masks

These new masks inactivate coronavirus in five minutes. CONICET Senior researchers participated in the direction of the project.

A team of scientists at CONICET, the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) and the National University of San Martin (UNSAM), with the support of textile SME Kovi LLC, developed fabric treated with active antivirals, bactericides and fungicides to produce social use masks, among other products. Its antimicrobial properties were successfully tested by the ‘National Institute of Industrial Technology’ (INTI) and its antiviral action by the ‘Virology Institute of the National Institute of Agricultural Technology’ (INTA). “The studies conducted at the Institute of Virology of INTA proved that these fabrics can inhibit Coronavirus similar to SARS-CoV-2 -pathogen that causes COVID-19- in less than five minutes,” describes Silvia Goyanes, CONICET researcher at the Institute of Physics of Buenos Aires (IFIBA, CONICET-UBA) and one of the directors of the project. “A great benefit of this development is that the materials required to produce it are available in our country and the industrial process can take place in any textile factory as it is the same used to dye fabric. So it is possible to produce these masks in large amounts. This mask is not a promise, it is a fact, any person who wants to buy it, can do it,” she says and adds that they are suitable for social use, but not for medical or professional use.

Another benefit of this mask, named Atom Protect, is that it is self-sanitizing. This means that it simultaneously reduces the probability of becoming infected with the pathogen that causes COVID-19 -at least through the mouth and nose- and the possibility of infecting others. Its bactericidal and antifungal properties make it more hygienic and prevents the individual who uses it from breathing in their own germs, which allows people to wear it for many hours at a time. This also reduces the risk of contracting an infection by touching the mask. Besides, as these masks are fixed by polymeric material, the antiviral, fungicidal and antibacterial actives remain on the fabric, immovable, after at least fifteen washes. Currently, these masks for social use can be purchased wholesale from the factory or through their online store.

“Compared to products that have antiviral action through electrostatic fields, the advantage that this mask has is that the antiviral action of the fabrics developed does not have an expiration date;” explains Goyanes, who is also full professor of the ‘Department of Physics of the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences’ of the UBA (FCEN, UBA), where she leads the ‘Laboratory of Polymers and Composite Materials.’

“The resistance of the bactericidal, fungicidal and antiviral actives to be removed from the fabric after many washes is also a guarantee that the person using this mask will not ‘swallow’ these particles (silver and copper ions and other antimicrobial compounds). In this sense, it is necessary to add that we also conducted tests that proved that Atom Protect is not cytotoxic: what is important in a product that is in permanent contact with the skin,” describes Ana Maria Llois, CONICET researcher and director of the ‘Implementation Unit Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology’ (UE-INN, CONICET-CNEA) and responsible for the direction of the project.


Two fabrics, three layers

The fabrics used for the manufacture of these masks are woven of polyester cotton -such as that of the sheets- that acquire the property of inactivating viruses and killing bacteria and fungi after being treated with various antiviral and antimicrobial products that the research team developed. The inner fabric layer of the mask -the one next to the mouth and nose- contains silver ions and other fungicidal and antibacterial compounds, along with polymeric materials that allow the retention of these active ingredients. The outer fabric layer is treated with a product that has copper ions -which provide the mask its antiviral action-, fungicidal, bactericidal and polymeric compounds. “On the outer fabric, there is a third semi-permeable polymeric layer which allows slowing down the absorption process of the microdroplets in which the viral particles are transported. This provides more time to exert their effect to the copper ions and the rest of the antimicrobial components, whose action, in any case, is very fast. If one drop of water falls on this outer layer, it will take a long time to wet the fabric,” Goyanes explains.


Instant action

The researchers emphasize that the antiviral and antibacterial action of the active ingredients used to treat the fabric for these masks is almost immediate, once the pathogens come into contact with it. The tests carried out at the INTI -to test the bacterial properties, which had already been evaluated at the Institute for ‘Research in Environmental Engineering’ (IIIA, UNSAM)-showed that after two minutes the number of bacteria was reduced so much that it was not possible to count them. Besides, the fungicidal properties were verified at the INTI.

“At the ‘Virology Research Institute’ of INTA, the fabrics were tested against various viruses, and we proved that in a period of two hours their antiviral action was excellent. In addition, a specific test was done to check its capacity to inhibit a Coronavirus similar to SARS-CoV-2. In an interval of only five minutes, which is minimum testing time, the results obtained were excellent. This means that Atom Protect deactivates the virus in even less than five minutes,” describes Llois, who is also researcher of the ‘National Commision of Atomic Energy’ (CNEA) and full professor at the ‘Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences of the UBA (FCEN, UBA).


Fellows in the factory

Along with Goyanes and Llois, the project was also directed by Roberto Candal, CONICET principal researcher and ‘research secretary’ of IIIA, and Griselda Polla, director of the ‘Transfer Team’ at the IIIA. Other CONICET professionals who participated were independent researcher Lucía Famá (IFIBA) and assistant researchers Lucas Guz y Patricio Carnelli (IIIA). But for the researchers, the work conducted by the fellows during the first stage of the pandemic was the most important drive of this development.

The conditions imposed by the pandemic and the quarantine, along with the particular synergy necessary for this project between CONICET, national universities and a textile company, made doctoral and postdoctoral fellows of CONICET and the Agency I+D+i, at the IFIBA and the IIIA, attend the factory of Kovi LLC in La Matanza, to learn about the equipment and the processes and carry out test on an industrial scale to make the transfer.

“Although we had the product in mind, it was important for us to adapt the manufacturing process to one that is used in the usual way in the textile company. We kept in contact with the fellows through video calls and videos to observe the equipment of the factory and the processes they used. It is worth mentioning the work of these young scientists who often started working at seven am to return home at twelve at night,” stresses Goyanes.


A technological project with social function

The agreement between CONICET, the UBA, the UNSAM and Kovi LLC, which provides the SME the exclusive license to manufacture these fabrics, establishes that during the first six months of production, the company will donate 10 percent of the fabrics to small producers in the province to manufacture masks that will be free of charge for the people who can’t afford them. “They are the ones who need them most,” says Goyanes.

Next challenge

After this experience, the next challenge of the research team is to design high technology masks for medical use. This new initiative was selected to be financed by the Agency I+D+i as part of the call IP COVID 19, launched in the framework of the actions of ‘Unit Coronavirus.’ “The main difference between medical and the social use masks is that they have to be made with non-woven fabrics; therefore the processes and products are different.” Goyanes explains. “Anyway, the development of the social use masks was very useful for our next initiative. It is necessary to consider that the medical masks are constantly used and will continue like that even after the pandemic,” adds Llois.


By Miguel Faigón