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Killing the flu virus with a special kind of ultraviolet light


It’s been a tough flu season. Health experts are always looking for ways to outsmart the influenza virus.

David Brenner thinks he’s found a new way: a type of ultraviolet light called far-UVC.

“This far-UVC light that we’re talking about is at the short wavelength end of UVC light,” he says.

Brenner directs the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. He says we’ve known for about a century that UV light is very good at killing bacteria and viruses. It damages their DNA.

“But the problem is that conventional UV light is a health hazard. It can cause skin cancer, cataracts in our eyes. So while it can be used to sterilize rooms and instruments when people aren’t around, it can’t be used when people are around because it’s a health hazard,” he says.

So here’s where far-UVC light comes in. Brenner found in a recent study that it can kill the influenza virus without hurting people’s skin or eyes.

“Bacteria and viruses such as the influenza virus are really, really small. So, far-UVC light can penetrate them as they’re floating around in the air, but it simply can’t reach any of the sensitive cells in our bodies and damage them,” says Brenner.

He first tested far-UVC light on the drug resistant bacteria known as MRSA.

“I actually had a friend who went into hospital for some minor surgery, and he developed a drug resistant surgical site infection and he died," he says. "And I was pretty devastated and I got my team together, and started to think, ‘is there anything we can do as physics people to try and take a bite out of this problem?’”

They found that far-UVC light worked to kill the bacteria. Several years ago, they started testing it on the influenza virus.

He says eventually, lamps using far-UVC light could be used in hospitals or airplanes or other public places. They’re working on getting FDA approval now.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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