Stephen Rouatt, CEO at Signify UK&I, on the rapid rise of lighting tech in tackling diseases.
Strict cleaning and sanitisation practices are now just a part of life as the world ‘learns to live with the virus.’ Hand sanitiser, PPE and constant spraying and wiping offer some protection and peace of mind. But now tech is stepping in to provide an extra level of protection alongside the UK’s successful vaccine roll-out.
Signify, formerly Philips Lighting N.V., has been developing UV-C disinfection products for decades. Despite having been used to kill microorganisms since the 1800s, UV-C is now ‘having a moment’ as consumers, governments and businesses seek to integrate Covid-busting solutions into their work and living spaces.
Stephen Rouatt is CEO at Signify UK&I. In late 2019, he and his team were looking into growth areas for their businesses.
“One of them was ultraviolet lighting, which was being used for disinfection purposes. We saw it picking up in US hospitals, where it was being used for Legionnaires disease and tuberculosis. We were seeing more and more uptake in the US,” he tells Health Tech World.
“We historically did a lot of this for water treatment and so forth and we felt we’d like to invest more in these because we were seeing a lot of disinfection opportunities.
“Timing is everything. I wish we’d done it maybe a year earlier, in fact. It turned out to be kind of prophetic.”
UV-C disinfection lighting works by breaking down molecular bonds in the DNA or RNA of viruses and bacteria. This destroys their ability to reproduce, effectively rendering them harmless. It can be used to rapidly disinfect air, surfaces, water and objects in schools, hospitals, supermarkets, sports stadiums… pretty much anywhere.
In lab tests conducted in conjunction with Boston University last year, Signify’s UV-C light sources reduced SARS-CoV-2 virus infectivity on a surface to below detectable levels in just nine seconds.
Signify’s UV-C consumer products are now finding their way into British home and offices. This summer saw the release of the Disinfection Desk Lamp, which Signify claims can sanitise an average-sized living room in about 45 minutes, and the Disinfection Box, designed to disinfect small items like keys, toys and toothbrushes.
UV-C disinfection boxes have commercial applications too, as Rouatt explains.
“My hairdresser puts all their combs in there and just pushes a button, disinfects them and uses them again. Then there’s things like museum guides. A bunch of people at the museum touch that so why don’t we give it a clean in between uses?
“One of our customers was paying somebody to spray and wipe-clean all these things. And obviously the spray has a chemical in it that breaks down the product they were working on. It took a lot of time. But now they can disinfect everything at once. It’s much cleaner and safer. No exposure, no chemicals in the air or anything like that.”
The renewed interest in UV-C has inevitably attracted bad actors who’ve set up shop on the usual platforms looking to capitalise on the technology. Rouatt notes that there’s ‘some really dodgy stuff out there’ from companies that don’t adhere to the safety standards required for what can be very dangerous technology if misused.
Rouatt says that risk-management is a matter of choosing the right application for the right solution. Plus, safety measures like motion sensors are built into the consumer solutions to ensure that you don’t get exposed to direct radiation.
“We were actually asked by a global company to come up with little hand wands and we just said no, because there’s no way you could actually use that safely,” Rouatt says.
While vaccines have helped slow the spread of the virus, its impact continues to be felt across the cultural space, from festival outbreaks to cancelled football matches.
In September, a World Cup qualifier between Brazil and Argentina was halted shortly before kick off after visiting players were accused of abandoning quarantine protocols. And in the Premier League, players test positive for the virus and miss games, impacting the player, the team and the club’s fortunes, on an off the pitch.
In February, Signify’s UV-C disinfection lighting was installed at The Stoop – home of rugby union team, Harlequins – in a UK first. Similar units have been installed at European sports clubs too, including PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands.
“Having one or more of your players out suddenly becomes a material event for sports club. Before Covid, you probably weren’t worried about Messi coming down with tuberculosis or Legionnaires disease, but now suddenly not having him being able to play for two weeks is a pain,” Rouatt says.
“The cost of doing this isn’t very expensive. For the players, it shows that you’re investing in their health and safety. Especially when you’re unable to control the environment. There’s lots of people going in and out. This is at least you can do.
“It’s not going to be perfect, it doesn’t stop everything, but at least it adds an extra layer of protection for the people within the space.”
While it’s Covid that has increased demand for UV-C technology, Signify’s products are fighting other diseases within the sporting space, too.
Bourne Hill Stables in West Sussex has installed a UV-C system to help protect its thoroughbreds against equine flu and EHV-1 – the neurological form of equine herpes virus. The upper wall mount units disinfect the air around the stables, providing the horses with an added layer of protection against the potentially devastating illnesses.
More widespread use of UV-C for Covid will likely come if it is endorsed by major health bodies like the WHO and the CDC, Rouatt says. The UK government is clearly open to the technology.
In a report published last year, UK scientific advisory body SAGE concluded that UV-C was likely to be viable decontamination approach against SARS-CoV-2 in some limited settings. And a government-funded research pilot is underway in Bradford to see whether UV purifiers can help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in primary school classrooms.
Signify has been working with ‘several’ government bodies on UV-C pilots, but Rouatt cannot reveal the details just yet. Meanwhile, the company will continue to build on its consumer product range.
Rouatt says: “It’d be great if it all go away tomorrow, but it’s something that we’ve got to learn to live with for the next while. The question is, what are the things that we can put in place to help minimise that risk?”