The COVID-19 pandemic has brought Peter Tsai, the material scientist and engineer who developed the N95 mask’s virus-blocking technology, out of retirement to study safe ways to disinfect the single-use masks for reuse —nearly 30 years after his invention.
“I just want to help people, and just do my job,” Tsai told NPR in a recent interview.
With N95s in short supply, some medical personnel are resorting to sterilization methods typically used to expunge the virus, like alcohol and bleach, which can degrade the integrity of the masks.
Tsai—who retired from the University of Tennessee last year after more than 30 years of teaching—says that researchers racing to find safe methods to sterilize the masks have been flooding his inbox, asking questions about his patented technology.
Among those seeking his expertise is a team of volunteer researchers at universities and organizations across the United States, looking at potential solutions for N95 mask decontamination. Since mid-March, N95DECON, as the collective is called, has experimented with heat, a type of ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide vapor.
But it was Chinese Malaysian Dr. Wu Lien Teh who designed a face mask that eventually became the N95 mask.
In 1910, when a contagious pneumonic plague was ravaging northeastern China, Wu, a Cambridge scholar who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1935, concluded that the disease traveled through the air. So he adapted something he had seen in England. He began instructing doctors, nurses, patients, and members of the public to wear masks using layers of cotton and gauze.
His peers were reluctant to take his mask seriously. One French doctor, Dr. Gerald Mesny, dismissed him in a racist manner, saying, “What can we expect from a Chinaman?” Mesny went on to work in a hospital without a mask and caught the plague himself, dying shortly after.
Meantime, aerosol boxes, as reported on April 3 in the New England Journal of Medicine, have emerged as an innovative solution to protect clinicians from exposure during the critical procedure of intubating patients with COVID-19.
The Aerosol Box is a transparent cube made of acrylic or polycarbonate that covers a patient’s head during endotracheal intubation, a necessary procedure for infected COVID-19 patients who suffer respiratory failure. It has two holes on one side through which physicians can insert their hands to perform the procedure while being shielded from the patient’s respiratory droplets.
The aerosol box is the brainchild of Lai Hsien-yung, an anesthesiologist in Taiwan, according to Focus Taiwan. Lai has registered his product, but makes it available for free to humanitarian organizations on the condition that it not be sold commercially.
“It all started when my friends in the medical field in China asked me in January to design something to give additional protection to medical workers in facilities that were running out of resources,” Lai wrote in Chinese on his Facebook page.
“But now, most of the inquiries I get about the box are coming from my friends in the United States,” Lai said.
Lai designed the Aerosol Box not to make a profit, but to have it used in an emergency in these difficult times, and it therefore did not have to be sophisticated, he said.
The device can essentially be made in about a half an hour at a cost of roughly $66 by any acrylic factory, he said.