As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage, those fortunate enough to be fully vaccinated and live in countries with declining case counts are now beginning to imagine a future without COVID-19. Whether or not that future will include the disinfecting robots purchased by hotel chains, universities, and stadiums is anyone’s guess.
The machines, some of which cost north of $100,000 dollars a piece, initially appeared an ideal solution to a virus believed to be transmitted primarily by physical contact. Manufacturers of robotic devices that blast ultraviolet light, or disinfecting spray, touted their products as vital technological tools in the battle against COVID-19.
And a justifiably concerned public was receptive to the pitch.
In May, New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced a pilot program to disinfect the subway involving 150 UV lamps from a company called PURO. In June, Good Morning America did a segment titled, “In hotels and beyond, UV light robots and lamps could help protect against coronavirus,” which cheer-leaded “a three-foot-tall robot named Kennedy.” Xenex, a company that makes “germ-zapping solutions,” listed big names like Weston Hotels and Resorts and Waldorf Astoria on its clients page.
But that was then. Now, experts aren’t so sure that many of the once-heralded disinfecting robots have a broader place in society’s battle against the coronavirus.
Dr. Emanuel Goldman, of Rutgers New Jersey Medical School’s Department Of Microbiology, Biochemistry And Molecular Genetics, put it succinctly when asked about robots that use UV light to disinfect surfaces.
“I actually do not think these devices are of much use in fighting the pandemic,” he explained over email. “Hospitals are the only possible places where they might be helpful.”
It’s impossible, of course, to forget the early days of the pandemic. As the coronavirus ravaged Wuhan, China, in January of 2020 and later Northern Italy in early March, U.S. officials focused on the dangers of surface transmission and told a worried public that they shouldn’t wear masks.
“Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!” wrote U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams in a now-deleted Feb. 29, 2020, tweet. “They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus[.]”
Notably, the Surgeon General wasn’t alone in his poorly aged guidance. “America’s Doctor,” Anthony Fauci, repeated the same deadly wrong claim.
“There is no reason for anyone right now in the United States, with regard to coronavirus, to wear a mask,” Fauci told Spectrum News DC the same month.
Q: Are face masks needed?
A: “Absolutely not.”
NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci says that there is no reason at this point for people in the U.S. to wear surgical masks to protect themselves from #coronavirus. pic.twitter.com/S7gxQsBL6Z
— Spectrum News DC (@SpectrumNewsDC) February 14, 2020
We soon learned how incorrect they both were (as Fauci likely knew at the time, later explaining his misleading comments by saying he wanted to save masks for healthcare workers).
In May of 2020, the CDC updated its guidance on transmission to note that, yes, “it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
In lieu of an emphasis on disinfecting surfaces, the CDC now encourages those trying to keep the virus at bay to focus on avoiding indoor gatherings, proper ventilation, and mask use (and, obviously, getting vaccinated).
So where does this shift away from surfaces leave the disinfecting robots?
Robots to the rescue, or not
While receiving a heightened amount of attention over the past 16 or so months, disinfecting robots have long played a valuable role in the medical world.
In 2012, the Baltimore Sun detailed how researchers at Johns Hopkins Hospital relied on robots spraying hydrogen peroxide in an effort to battle the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can thrive in hospitals. In 2015, Modern Healthcare, a healthcare industry trade magazine, noted the trend of hospitals buying robots to specifically target bacteria.
According to the CDC, as of 2019, there were more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections each year in the U.S. alone, with more than 35,000 deaths as a result. UV light, specifically light generated by ultraviolet-C (UVC) lamps, kills bacteria by damaging its DNA.
When it comes to viruses, the FDA notes that UVC radiation damages the SARS-Coronavirus, and likely the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, by “[destroying] the outer protein coating” of the virus.
In other words, the medical disinfecting-robot business isn’t some gimmick that sprung up over night in response to the coronavirus. And with the industry projected to be worth $5.77 billion by 2027, it’s clearly not going anywhere soon.
But that doesn’t mean the global fight against the virus hasn’t created new opportunities. A spokesperson for Xenex, the maker of the LightStrike UV robot, explained how the company’s business has grown following the pandemic.
“LightStrike robots are now being used to disinfect schools, airports, hotels, convention centers, police stations & correctional facilities, office buildings, professional sports arenas, and much more,” she wrote. After the pandemic, she said, they’ll “still have a role” because they destroy “influenza, MRSA, norovirus and other pathogens that can be transmitted via surfaces.”
So, are robots like the LightStrike on their way to becoming a permanent fixture of our post-pandemic society? Maybe, but according to Dr. Goldman, those resources would be better allocated elsewhere.
“I don’t see this as a useful investment,” he responded when asked whether universities, stadiums, or venues should spend money on UV light robots. “They might be cost-effective as a replacement for ‘deep cleaning,’ but we now know that ‘deep cleaning’ is a waste as well. Ordinary routine hygiene and maintenance is all that’s needed.”
A breath of fresh air
On April 27, the CDC, encouraged by declining case rates and increased vaccinations, updated its guidance to note that, in some circumstances, it’s OK for fully vaccinated people to not wear masks outdoors.
More than a year after the World Health Organization officially deemed the spread of the coronavirus a pandemic, expert opinion has solidified around the notion that aerosol transmission, not surface contact, is how the virus spreads. That’s why outdoor gatherings are so much safer than indoor ones.
Someday, at some point in the future, the coronavirus pandemic will be officially declared over. When that time comes, those fortunate enough to have lived through it will likely be confronted with difficult questions about what society should look like in the years ahead.
When it comes to the expensive disinfecting robots in schools and stadiums, we should already have our answer.