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The ionizer in your kid’s school may not do much to fight COVID

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Robin Eckenroth | Getty Images

Last fall, Jeff Kreiter, director of operational services for the school district in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, found himself flooded with proposals to clean the air inside classrooms. The ideas varied—UV lights, air exchangers, a wide array of filters—but one looked especially promising: a bipolar ionizer. The system involved a set of electrified tubes, placed in air ducts, that would flood the buildings with charged particles, or ions. Marketing materials from the company AtmosAir promised that this would eliminate pollutants and viruses by emulating the ion-rich air found in an alpine village. The district paid a local vendor $2 million to install the system in 33 school buildings. “Ultimately we wanted to kill the virus and have a healthier environment, but we wanted this long-term and not just for corona,” Kreiter says.

The science behind those ion-producing tubes reads like an elegant example from a high school textbook. The ions are meant to induce what chemists call “coagulation.” Like blood cells clotting a wound, particles of opposite charge glom together, capturing nasty things that you don’t want in your lungs, like pollen and mold. Eventually, those clumps grow large enough that gravity takes over and they fall harmlessly to the ground. With viruses, there’s another benefit: the ions gum up surface proteins used to enter cells, making them less effective invaders. The result, and the banner claim made in the company’s pitch to schools during the pandemic, is a 99.92 percent reduction in coronavirus within 30 minutes.

The problem, according to air-quality experts, is that there’s little independent evidence to back up such claims. Air cleaners are largely self-regulated, with few standards for how manufacturers should test their products, and peer-reviewed research is scant. The science may work in principle or in a controlled lab test, but how well ionization cleans a classroom’s air is a different story. Claims related to COVID-19 are especially dubious. Most air-cleaner makers, including AtmosAir, rely on controlled tests that demonstrate how ionization eliminates viruses found on surfaces, which has little bearing on how well ions clear the air.

Frustrated air-quality scientists say the industry is making a play for funds that should go to simpler, proven improvements to school ventilation. “None of these devices have been proven to work,” says Delphine Farmer, an atmospheric chemist at Colorado State University who has studied ionization technology. “Anyone who understands the chemistry would say you should be very wary of using them.”

A bigger concern, she adds, is the potential for air-cleaner devices to do harm. Ionizers in particular have a history of producing byproducts, including ozone, formaldehyde, and other volatile compounds, that can damage the lungs. Tests of AtmosAir’s ionizer by the New York State Department of Health found elevated levels of ozone in classrooms where it was running. The company disputes those findings and points to industry certifications that its technology is ozone-free.

But air cleaning is now in vogue in schools, which are flush with federal funding to reopen safely and are poised to receive much more. Dozens of districts have purchased ionizers using Cares Act funding, as well as other chemical air-cleaning treatments. After a cursory search, Marwa Zaatari, an air-quality consultant in Austin, Texas, compiled a list of purchases totaling about $60 million. The American Rescue Plan recently approved by Congress includes an additional $122 billion in school aid, stoking optimism among air-cleaner makers and vendors. “It feels so defeating that after this sudden awakening to the importance of indoor air quality, all the money is being poured toward unproven technology,” Zaatari says.

The best ways to improve indoor air quality depend on the space, but most experts point to relatively simple solutions such as opening windows and installing physical filters that meet testing standards developed by organizations such as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers, or ASHRAE. The acronyms for those standards, such as MERV and HEPA, get a little confusing, but they reflect what kinds of particles they can filter out and at what rate. MERV-13 filters, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say are effective for filtering out aerosols of the size that may harbor SARS-CoV-2, go for about $25. A school may need dozens of filters and possible upgrades of ventilation systems if they can’t force enough air through the less-porous filters.

The makers of ionizers dispute that their technology is unproven. Tony Abate, the chief technology officer of Clean Air Group, AtmosAir’s corporate name, says traditional filtration methods require ventilation systems that effectively circulate air through the filters, which some spaces don’t have. By contrast, ions that are dispersed throughout a building deal with contaminants, like viruses, at the source of a sneeze or cough. Ideally, he says, schools should adopt a combined approach. “It’s a layer of protection. It’s not meant to replace other layers. It’s important that you use filters and ventilate your buildings and that you control your sources with masks and handwashing,” he says. He points to commissioned lab studies and case studies from customers who have seen their air quality improve.

Kreiter, of Sioux Falls schools, where students have been learning in person since last fall, says officials are pleased with their air quality so far. One tell was the lack of issues with mold this year, a common problem during the winter. But he acknowledged it was difficult to tell whether the improvements were due to ions floating throughout the schools or the result of improved air filters, which were purchased separately and installed at roughly the same time.

Air cleaners slip through the regulatory cracks. They’re not medical devices, so the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t review them. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t regulate indoor air quality beyond certain hazardous byproducts. The CDC refers to air cleaners as “emerging technologies” and suggests buyers “do their homework” on manufacturers’ claims. ASHRAE offers similar equivocation, noting the lack of “convincing, scientifically rigorous, peer-reviewed studies” on the technology. In other words, buyer beware. That leaves schools wading through an alphabet soup of unfamiliar acronyms and manufacturer claims as they rush to use funds to reopen safely.

Those dynamics are not unique to air cleaners. Other popular post-COVID school upgrades, like contactless temperature screeners, fall into a similar gray area in terms of marketing and regulation. A research team last month reported that many manufacturers had programmed them to display only “normal” temperature readings. School officials and vendors told WIRED that the benefits of the thermometers were largely psychological.

For air cleaners, the troubled history predates COVID-19. They have traditionally been sold as a way to improve indoor air quality without sacrificing energy efficiency, making them a favorite of green building designers. Instead of introducing outdoor air, which needs to be heated or cooled, they allow buildings to be sealed more tightly while the ions circulate within. Products like Sharper Image’s Ionic Breeze, a staple of early 2000s catalog culture, have helped give the industry a premium sheen. The problem, as Consumer Reports found when it tested the Ionic Breeze, was that ionization didn’t do much to remove pollutants but produced lots of ozone. (Litigation over the device later helped send Sharper Image into bankruptcy protection.)

Without standard testing methods, it can be a challenge for nonexperts to evaluate claims about a particular device. Effectiveness will depend on many aspects of the testing, like how the pollutant was introduced, the size and ventilation of the space, and how intensely the ionizer ran. Another difficulty is how much credit it deserves for clearing the air amid other factors. A manufacturer may claim that an ionizer removes 99.9 percent of a particular pollutant over a set period of time, but was it really the ionization, or was it a combination of basic filtration and natural decay? And did it remove the pollutant from the air or off of a surface? “I don’t blame schools when they’re trying to make a decision, because the reports are very convoluted, and it’s easy to be fooled,” Zaatari says.

A single passage of a room’s air through a MERV-13 filter will remove at least 85 percent of very fine aerosols, explains Kathleen Owen, an air-quality engineer and member of ASHRAE’s epidemic task force. Sounds a lot worse than 99.9 percent. But in a well-ventilated space, air may pass through a filter several times within minutes. “It pains me to see schools buying something I can’t say actually works,” Owen says. “I really, really want to see more data out there.”

Recently Farmer, the Colorado State researcher, along with colleagues at Illinois Tech and Portland State University, put one ionizer to a rare independent test. They assessed a “needlepoint bipolar ionization” device, particularly popular with schools, including four districts in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania which collectively spent $1.3 million to install them, according to The Morning Call in Allentown. (The pitch from a local salesman also emphasized mountaintop air.) In tests in both controlled settings and those meant to mirror real-world spaces, the researchers found that the device produced a negligible amount of ozone, which was a good thing. But the ionization had little impact on particles floating in the air and was found to have a downside: it produced other volatile compounds including acetone and toluene, irritants that can cause lung and nerve damage with chronic exposure. The science might be elegant, but in a real-world space there’s just not enough charge and not enough air flowing for the ions and coagulation to make much of a difference, Farmer says.

Global Plasma Solutions, the company that makes the device, disputes the findings of the tests, which it says did not reflect standard operating procedures and required more replication. A spokesperson for the company directed WIRED to research commissioned by the company showing the technology neutralized SARS-CoV-2 on surfaces and aerosols in lab settings, as well as case studies from customers including universities and the White House.

Farmer acknowledges that her team ran only one set of experiments on a single device. “I didn’t go into science to go after specific manufacturers,” she says. She favors government regulation, or at least a clearer set of standards by which manufacturers should rigorously test their products and present their data to customers. That’s the role of a body like ASHRAE. The pandemic has given more urgency to come up with standards, and members are working on them, but Owen says the process could take years.

In the meantime, Zaatari has a simple message for school administrators and parents calling her for advice: stick to the basics. “It’s so cheap to use current proven technologies,” she says. “There’s so much misinformation.”

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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Early omicron data finds vaccine protection stumbles—but recovers with boosters

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Enlarge / Pedestrians walk in front of a COVID-19 vaccination site in Brooklyn, New York, on Nov. 19, 2021.

The first batch of preliminary laboratory data on the omicron coronavirus variant has come out, and the results are largely what health experts have anticipated: protective antibodies from two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are considerably less effective at thwarting the new variant than older versions of the virus. However, antibody potency appears to rebound to fight omicron after a booster dose.

The results suggest that people who have only two doses of the mRNA vaccine may not be protected from infection but would likely remain protected from severe disease. The findings also suggest that maintaining high levels of protection against omicron will require a booster dose of the current vaccines—or even an omicron-specific shot in the future.

The top-line findings and conclusions come from three separate sets of laboratory experiments—all of which are extremely preliminary, involve small sample numbers, and have not been peer-reviewed or published in scientific journals.

Pfizer and BioNTech data

The freshest data comes from preliminary results reported online Wednesday morning by Pfizer and BioNTech. The companies conducted laboratory experiments that pitted antibodies from the blood serum of vaccinated people against a pseudovirus engineered to mimic the omicron variant. The experiments specifically measured the activity of neutralizing antibodies, which are a subset of antibodies that can bind to SARS-CoV-2 virus particles in such a way that the virus is prevented from entering human cells. Neutralizing antibodies are the most potent at preventing infection, but the immune system also produces a diverse array of other antibodies that can help fight an infection. Additionally, the immune system has protective cell-based responses that are not captured in these types of laboratory experiments.

In experiments using the blood sera of people fully vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (two doses), neutralizing antibody levels fell 25-fold against the omicron-mimicking pseudovirus compared with levels seen against a pseudovirus mimicking an older version of the virus. But when the companies looked at blood sera from fully vaccinated people one month after they received a vaccine booster shot (three doses), neutralizing antibody levels rebounded 25-fold against omicron, making them comparable to neutralizing antibody levels seen against older versions of the virus.

“Although two doses of the vaccine may still offer protection against severe disease caused by the omicron strain, it’s clear from these preliminary data that protection is improved with a third dose of our vaccine,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in a statement. “Ensuring as many people as possible are fully vaccinated with the first two-dose series and a booster remains the best course of action to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The companies also reported that they are still working on an omicron-specific vaccine dose in case it is needed. The timeline for the first batches to be available is still within 100 days from now, the companies said.

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Some “true believers” in space settlement are starting to make it happen

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Enlarge / Dylan Taylor listens as former astronaut Nicole Stott speaks during a Space For Humanity event in early 2020. The organization’s executive director, Rachel Lyons, is in the background.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in an occasional series of profiles of people helping to lead the commercial space industry, which NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy has called “the envy of the world.” Everyone knows who Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are. But there are many other people working to usher in a future in which spaceflight is sustainable and economic activity in space is profitable. These are some of their stories.

Dylan Taylor seemed almost in shock when we spoke by telephone in late October.

“This,” he said, his voice breaking, “has been a dream of mine for almost my entire life.”

Taylor had called to say the crew lineup for the third human flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard flight had been finalized, and he was among four paying passengers. The flight, launching on Saturday from West Texas, will include higher-profile crew members. Notably, Good Morning America co-anchor Michael Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley, the eldest daughter of Alan Shepard, are both flying as guests alongside Taylor, Evan Dick, Lane Bess, and Cameron Bess.

But for commercial space, Taylor is one of the most consequential space entrepreneurs yet to go to space, perhaps second only to Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and Virgin Galactic’s Sir Richard Branson, who both flew earlier this summer.

Flying on New Shepard this week is an important step in Taylor’s personal journey, and he hopes to share the experience with others. In 2017, he founded Space For Humanity, which is buying seats on New Shepard and Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft to create opportunities for “citizen astronauts.” The goal is to sponsor people from all over the world to go to space, experience the overview effect, and return to Earth to share it with their communities.

But his impact goes far beyond simply spreading awareness of spaceflight. In recent years, Taylor has had an increasingly important, if quiet, influence on the development of commercial space. He is chairman and founder of Voyager Space Holdings, which has built a portfolio of new space companies. One small Voyager company, Nanoracks, recently won a $160 million contract from NASA to begin developing a commercial space station in low Earth orbit.

For Taylor, this marked a hugely validating moment. He counts himself as one of “Gerry’s kids,” a cohort of idealistic space cadets who believe humans should settle space and that the best place to do so is in massive O’Neill cylinders—first theorized by physicist Gerry O’Neill—orbiting Earth and the Moon. Privately developed space stations represent a concrete first step toward this goal.

“I’m a true believer,” Taylor, 51, said. “If the end state is O’Neillian, the way my brain works is—what are the obstacles and what are the constraints, and how do we overcome them?”

There are already plenty of companies building rockets, he believes. So the biggest constraint now is the development of economic activity in space, giving humans a purpose to go there.

His answer ultimately has come in the form of Voyager, which he describes as a “sustainable and benevolent” operating company. It seeks to acquire promising small space companies focusing on in-space activities, such as habitats, mitigating orbital debris, and satellite servicing. Taylor looks at the new space industry and sees a lot of companies struggling, even though they have good ideas. Maybe they have capital constraints or can’t scale easily.

Through Voyager, Taylor wants space entrepreneurs to do what they do best: innovate. So Voyager acquires their companies, provides the funding they need to scale, and helps with the business side of things. In this way, Taylor might best be seen as someone who helps promising new space companies survive the “valley of death” most startups go through.

Getting into business

Taylor grew up in Idaho and is the son of a metallurgical engineering professor at the University of Idaho. He was an avid baseball player and enjoyed the social side of school more than academics. Still, he got good enough grades to go to almost any school in the country, eventually choosing the University of Arizona because he liked the sunshine. Taylor followed in his father’s footsteps and studied engineering, but he knew he wanted to eventually become a lawyer or businessman.

After graduating from college in 1993, Taylor took a job with a Switzerland-based electronics company, Saia-Burgess, in Chicago. He got in at the right time as just one of a handful of employees in North America. Seven years later, Taylor was a general manager at a company with a few thousand people in the United States. By the turn of the century, he was not yet 30 years old, and he was already a sharp young engineer who had earned an MBA and understood the fundamentals of global business.

At the time, Saia-Burgess moved its North American operations to Troy, Michigan, to be closer to its automotive customers. Taylor disliked the new location and moved back to Chicago to be with his friends and a girlfriend who became his wife. He took a job with LaSalle Partners, which offered investment banking and real estate services. Taylor received several promotions and eventually hired on with Colliers International, a private equity firm in Toronto, in 2009.

Again, he caught a company on the upswing. Over the next six years, Colliers’ annual revenue increased from $400 million to about $3 billion. Taylor also rose to become CEO of the Americas. In 2015, the company went public, and Taylor owned “a significant part” of it. “That was a pretty life-changing event for me,” he said.

But then, in 2019, Colliers fired Taylor for “insider trading.” He was working as CEO of its real estate services division. This could have been another life-changing event, albeit not in a good way. A subsequent investigation, however, found there had been no improper dealings. “Long story short, I had decided to leave,” Taylor said. “And then as I was leaving, there was a disagreement that was completely resolved.” Taylor and Colliers issued a joint statement, amicably settling the matter.

Taylor had wanted to leave Colliers after about a quarter-century in the business world because he was increasingly interested and passionate about spaceflight. He had first started to engage in space as far back as 2007, when he met Space Adventurers co-founder Eric Anderson at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

By then, Taylor was already financially set for life. “I’m sitting at the World Economic Forum, and supposedly you’re king of the world,” he said. “You have more money than you need. Yet, you’re not feeling fulfilled. I started to think about my purpose.” Taylor soon realized that his purpose was to help humanity extend its reach into space to become a spacefaring species. Taylor ended up investing in Anderson’s ventures, and the aerospace engineer began introducing Taylor to his network.

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Anime convention of 53K is first US case study for omicron spread, CDC says

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Enlarge / Costumed attendees take a break during Anime NYC at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City on November 20, 2021. Anime NYC is an annual three-day anime convention held in New York City.

An anime convention held in New York City last month may inadvertently offer the US its first case study on the spread of the omicron coronavirus variant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fifty-three thousand anime fans from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and 27 other countries traveled to New York City for the Anime NYC convention, which ran from November 19 and 21 in the city’s Javits Center. Organizers reported afterward that they were overwhelmed by the large attendance and struggled with packed rooms and crowding—conditions ideal for coronavirus transmission.

Last week, officials in Minnesota reported that a resident tested positive for the omicron variant after attending the convention. At the time, it was only the second omicron case detected in the US. But since then, officials have identified cases in at least 18 other US states, as well as over 50 countries worldwide.

The discovery of omicron at a large, tightly packed event with far-flung travelers is concerning. The variant is thought to be ultratransmissible. Preliminary reports from South Africa suggest omicron may spread more than twice as quickly as the already hypertransmissible delta variant. In such a crowded convention, omicron could swiftly spread among attendees and be carried back to home states and countries for further spread.

Spotting spread

Omicron is, in all likelihood, rapidly escalating in the US. Despite this, health officials have been relatively slow in detecting the variant. Genomic surveillance of variants is patchy and limited across states, though it has improved since the pandemic began. Another factor working against the country is the still extremely high levels of delta transmission. Any relatively small rise in omicron cases could easily be washed out by the massive delta wave.

But the anime convention provides a specific source of transmission that health investigators can use to get a clearer look at how omicron is spreading. The CDC has teamed up with the Minnesota and New York City health departments to retrace omicron’s steps through the massive event.

In a press briefing Tuesday, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said that the CDC has reached out to all states, territories, and countries with residents who attended the convention and hopes to reach all of the reported 53,000 attendees. So far, health officials have contacted more than 35,000 of them.

“Data from this investigation will likely provide some of the earliest looks in this country on the transmissibility of the variant,” Walensky said during the briefing.

Contact tracers will likely have their work cut out for them. On December 4, Connecticut announced that it had detected its first omicron case in a man in his 60s. The man had a family member who had tested positive for COVID-19 days earlier after returning from the anime convention in New York.

In a New York Times article published December 5, the Minnesota man first found to have an omicron infection after the convention said that roughly half of the 30 vaccinated people he recalls socializing with have tested positive. He told the paper that he had spent his time in New York attending discussion panels at the convention, chatting with strangers, and singing karaoke.

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