Toronto Star: The secret ingredient in this face mask that could prevent the next coronavirus? A dash of salt

Their new technique could make face masks more than just a shield against potentially life-threatening illnesses.

Dr. Hyo-Jick Choi, a biomedical engineer and professor, has been investigating how salt crystals can essentially cut through and destroy airborne viruses, like a sharp, briny needle piercing a balloon. But he is quick to warn that his research is not a recipe for a do-it-yourself home project.

After news of his work surfaced, Choi said he received reports from readers about people in China soaking their face masks in salt or saline solution.

“No, it doesn’t work like that,” Choi said with a laugh, adding that not only are people using the wrong kind of salt, it’s currently more important to properly use the masks available.

Choi and his main research partner, PhD student Ilaria Rubino, have been studying the use of salt on masks and respirators since 2015, funded by non-profit research organization Mitacs and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. They published their initial findings in 2017, and have just submitted a second paper for consideration.

In the meantime, Choi has obtained a patent for the product, and hopes to see it on the market in around 18 months.

He said the next step is collaboration between different scientific fields to come up with the best way to actually make the mask, including the materials and how much salt to use. Some things — like what kind of salt solution his mask will use — are still top secret. 

Choi made his salty discovery when researching the development of an oral vaccine. Vaccines contain a weakened form of the virus they’re designed to protect against. The sugar used in the oral vaccine Choi was testing was neutralizing that weakened virus, rendering the vaccine ineffective.

Choi said this was due to the crystallization of sugar — the structure of the crystals was essentially cutting through and destroying the virus. “Crystallization becomes the biggest challenge to overcome in developing the oral vaccine.”

But Choi saw a way to turn this challenge into an opportunity. Instead of sugar, he used salt, which crystallizes in a more uniform way, and started testing different salt solutions on various viruses.

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