Funding Will Pave Way for Widespread Indoor Deployment of Germicidal UV Disinfection
By Kelly Blake
Photo illustration by Shutterstock
A $9.4 million gift to the University of Maryland will help fund a daring research initiative aimed at creating the next great public health revolution: innovative and affordable systems that provide clean, safe indoor air and prevent the spread of respiratory infections.
Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin’s cryptocurrency gift from his Balvi Filantropic Fund—the largest of its kind to UMD and among the largest crypto donations ever given to a U.S. university—will support the School of Public Health’s research into germicidal ultraviolet light (GUV) led by the Public Health AeroBiology Laboratory (PHAB Lab). Operating with the flip of a switch, the GUV systems could one day be an indispensable and ubiquitous measure to eliminate COVID-19, influenza and other highly contagious pathogens from the air more quickly and effectively than ventilation and filtration alone.
The project is led by Professor Donald K. Milton, M.D., PHAB Lab director and a leading expert in how respiratory viruses are passed between people. His research has provided some of the key evidence that viruses like influenza and SARS-CoV-2 persist in indoor air as tiny particles known as aerosols; the new funding could help further his efforts to demonstrate their centrality in respiratory disease transmission.
Milton in recent years has emerged as one of the most prominent scientific voices backing the use of masks to guard against the spread of COVID-19, and his work was cited by the National Research Council in its April 2020 letter to the White House warning that COVID-19 could spread through breathing and talking. The message, and many of Milton’s findings, contradict long-held beliefs in medicine that harmful viruses spread mainly through relatively large respiratory droplets that quickly fall to the ground.
“The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the need to control the spread of respiratory infections without shutting down social and economic activities,” Milton said. “We have the technology to prevent airborne spread of respiratory diseases. But if we are going to use these technologies to control the next pandemic, we must invest in it now, before it starts. This generous gift from Balvi is going to help us lay the groundwork to make that happen.”
The Balvi Filantropic Fund prioritizes quickly deploying funds to high-value COVID projects that traditional, institutional or commercial funding sources tend to overlook for being too early or “outside the box.” Buterin’s recent philanthropy has included gifts to improve the COVID response in India and to support Ukrainian relief efforts as the country contends with a full-scale Russian invasion.
Milton previously installed a special germicidal GUV air disinfection system in his lab to protect people studying flu, and since January 2020, those involved in the PHAB Lab’s StopCOVID study. The devices, common in certain medical environments, are able to “easily and silently kill half of the germs floating in indoor air every two minutes or less,” Milton wrote earlier this year in a New York Times essay—but major obstacles prevent wider deployment of the systems.
This Balvi gift will enable the PHAB Lab team to work to overcome these hurdles through five main efforts:
"Preventing future pandemics is a grand challenge, and universities have an important role to play," said UMD President Darryll J. Pines. "Our University of Maryland experts are leading research and testing technologies that can impact disease transmission and transform how we respond to the next global health threat."
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