This Air Force Paint Additive Could Help Reduce COVID-19 Spread Indoors

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Air Force disease-control coating additive
The Air Force is licensing patent rights to a disease-control coating additive to a private-sector company that wants to put the formula in paint and other products. The formula was invented by Dr. Jeff Owens, a senior chemist with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center. (Courtesy photo by Theriax)

The U.S. Air Force is stepping up its efforts to fight the spread of diseases inside buildings.

It has authorized Theriax LLC, a research and development laboratory, to use a patented coating formula that greatly enhances protection against airborne microbes, including COVID-19, inside buildings and homes, the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center announced Aug. 4.

The Air Force received a patent in 2013 for an invention that coats surfaces with a protective finish, killing toxins on contact, according to a release from the support center. Dr. Jeff Owens, a senior chemist with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, invented it as part of his work in chemical and biological warfare defense.

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"The patented technology is essentially an additive that can be incorporated into coatings for surfaces and textiles to protect against bioaerosols like viruses, bacteria and mold," Owens said in a statement.

Now, Florida-based Theriax is collaborating with the Civil Engineer Laboratory at Tyndall Air Force Base under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement to develop next-generation coatings that can actually deactivate biological and chemical weapons, the release states.

The collaboration allows Theriax to bring a commercial paint product to the market that could help the Air Force improve the quality of life and health for airmen and their families on its bases, Owens said.

"We know the free additive deactivates black mold, influenza and staphylococcus aureus, the causative organism for Methicillin-resistant infections," he added. "Theriax will use our facility to test how it holds up in paint against a viral simulant and then influenza."

Bruce Salter, a senior research scientist supporting the Air Force Civil Engineer Center and technical adviser to Theriax, said in the statement that researchers have seen significant benefits after using the paint on the walls of the CE Lab in an informal assessment.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the painting technology was targeted at mold growth, an inevitable challenge for coastal installations. After Hurricane Michael devastated Tyndall in October 2018, the CE Lab required a massive cleanup and a fresh coat of paint. Salter said the research team used the antimicrobial paint on one wall, which remained mold-free for six months.

"Over time, the disinfectant charge wears off and the paint needs to be recharged by wiping down the treated surface with a disinfectant," he said. "The recharge frequency is largely dependent on the environmental conditions."

Now, the team's priority is fighting COVID-19, the release states.

"Our partnership and our work is now significantly motivated by COVID-19 as we continue to use the Air Force's technology to create more products with coatings for disease control," Steve Ribich, CEO of Theriax, said in the statement.

Theriax will do the legwork for commercialization, including obtaining regulatory approval and identifying manufacturing and distribution partners, while conducting more control tests of the additive as a preservative and antimicrobial in paint.

"If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it's that reducing exposure pathways and lowering the concentration of infectious aerosols inside a room is critical to controlling disease spread," Owens said. "This paint isn't a magic bullet, but it could be one tool that helps make a difference in the fight to protect human health."

-- Bing Xiao can be reached at bingxiao2020@u.northwestern.edu.

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