The flu virus spreading through the air can be killed off by special ultraviolet light lamps costing just £700 each, a new study suggests.
Continuous low doses of far ultraviolet C (far-UVC) light kills airborne flu viruses without harming human tissues, causing skin cancers or cataracts.
The findings could pave the way to installing the overhead lamps in hospitals, surgeries, schools and airports to help stop seasonal epidemics.
The results, led by Columbia University, come amid the worst flu outbreak in recent years in the US, with every state except rocked by the virus.
And the deadly outbreak has claimed the lives of more than 200 people in the UK, but appears to be slowing down as the end of season approaches.
Scientists, led by Professor David Brenner, conducted the new trial on the H1N1 virus – the same strain that killed 50 million in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
But, in theory, far-UVC light could also kill the H3N2 strain, dubbed ‘Aussie flu’, which has sparked widespread fears of a similar pandemic this winter.
Continuous low doses of far ultraviolet C (far-UVC) light kills airborne flu viruses without harming human tissues, causing skin cancers or cataracts
Far-UVC light, which has a wavelength of between 200 to 400 nanometers (nm), is expensive, but if mass produced costs should sink.
It would offer a separate way of preventing people from becoming ill, alongside the conventional vaccines that protect millions each year.
Professor Brenner, from the New York university’s Centre for Radiological Research, added that far-UVC is likely to be effective against all flu strains.
It comes amid widespread fears that this year’s vaccine has been ineffective, with several studies showing it to work just 20 per cent of the time.
And Public Health England officials were forced to admit in January that the jab dished out to thousands didn’t protect against ‘Japanese flu’.
The strain, known as B-Yamagata, has been widespread across the UK this year, and is responsible for half of the flu hospitalisations.
The results, led by Columbia University, come amid the worst flu outbreak in recent years in the US and the UK
Professor Brenner said: ‘If our results are confirmed in other settings, it follows that the use of overhead low-level far-UVC light in public locations would be a safe and efficient method for limiting the transmission and spread of airborne-mediated microbial diseases, such as influenza and tuberculosis.
WHAT FLU STRAINS ARE IN THE UK IN 2018?
There are many different types of flu circulating around the world, but four main types are being seen in Britain this winter.
H3N2 – Dubbed ‘Aussie flu’ after it struck Australia hard last winter, this strain is more likely to affect the elderly, who do not respond well to the current vaccine. This is one of the most common strains seen so far this winter, with at least 63 confirmed cases seen in official laboratories.
H1N1 – This strain – known as ‘swine flu’ – is generally more likely to hit children, who respond well to vaccination. This has been seen nearly as often as H3N2 so far this year, with at least 50 cases confirmed in labs. In the past it was commonly caught from pigs, but that changed in 2009 when it started spreading rapidly among humans in a major global pandemic.
B / Yamagata – This is known as ‘Japanese flu’. Only people who received the ‘four strain’ vaccine – which is being slowly rolled out after it was introduced for the first time last winter – are protected against the Yamagata strain. Those who received the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine are not protected. This strain has been seen in at least 63 lab cases so far this winter.
B / Victoria – This strain is vaccinated against in the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine, but has hardly appeared so far this winter, with just around four confirmed cases.
‘And unlike flu vaccines, far-UVC is likely to be effective against all airborne microbes, even newly emerging strains.’
Scientists have known for decades that broad-spectrum UVC light is effective at killing bacteria and viruses by destroying the molecular bonds that hold their DNA together.
This conventional UV light is routinely used to decontaminate surgical equipment.
But Professor Brenner explained that conventional UV light is also a ‘human health hazard’ that can lead to skin cancer, which ‘prevents its use in public spaces’.
Several years ago he and colleagues hypothesised that a narrow spectrum of ultraviolet light called far-UVC could kill microbes without damaging healthy tissue.
Professor Brenner said: ‘Far-UVC light has a very limited range and cannot penetrate through the outer dead-cell layer of human skin or the tear layer in the eye, so it’s not a human health hazard.
‘But because viruses and bacteria are much smaller than human cells, far-UVC light can reach their DNA and kill them.’
Earlier studies demonstrated far-UVC light was effective at killing MRSA, a common cause of surgical wound infections, but without harming human or mouse skin.
The flu virus is spread through breathing in fine liquid droplets, or aerosols, that become airborne when infected people cough, sneeze, talk or just breathe.
The new study was designed to test if far-UVC light could efficiently kill aerosolised influenza virus in the air, in a setting similar to a public space.
In the study, aerosolized H1N1 virus, a common strain of flu virus, was released into a test chamber and exposed to very low doses of 222nm far-UVC light.
A control group of aerosolised virus was not exposed to the UVC light, according to the results published in Scientific Reports.
The far-UVC light inactivated the flu viruses, at the same efficiency as conventional germicidal UV light.
And in tests on dog kidney cells, the exposed samples were unable to infect the cells. However, the viruses not exposed to far-UVC light still managed to.
REVEALED: SIX OF THE UK VICTIMS WHO DIED FROM FLU DURING THE WINTER OF 2017/18
Melissa Whiteley, 18, passed away from flu on January 27 – after falling ill on Christmas Day.
The engineering student, from Hanford, Staffordshire, could barely walk when she was admitted to hospital.
She was placed in an induced coma but did not recover, her heartbroken twin sister revealed.
Miss Whiteley passed away at Glenfield Hospital in Leicester surrounded by her loved-ones – including her twin sister Megan – on January 27.
Coby Simons, nine, from Exeter, passed away on January 24 – two days after being struck down with the killer virus. His parents initially asked for his identity to be hidden.
Public Health England at the time confirmed the gifted maths pupil tested positive for flu. He becomes the sixth victim across the UK to have been named.
Tributes have flooded in for the year 5 pupil, who was shown to have influenza B in his post-mortem. He was described as ‘absolutely perfect’ by his parents.
His mother Louise told DevonLive: ‘He was just such a lovely boy. He was absolutely perfect; I wouldn’t have changed anything about him, not even when he was in a bad mood.’
Dylan Day, 12, died from flu, his heartbroken parents revealed.
The schoolboy, from Stoke-on-Trent, passed away after developing sepsis, triggered by a a strain of influenza B he was fighting, on January 20.
Tributes flooded in for the keen footballer, with family and friends describing him as an ‘amazing’ and ‘cheeky’ young boy who will be ‘greatly missed’.
Dylan’s mother Sarah announced his death in a poignant Facebook post, revealing he had ‘really suffered’ before his eventual death.
Bethany Walker, 18, died after taking ill at home – initially from flu symptoms which later developed into pneumonia.
Miss Walker, of Applecross, Scotland, was airlifted to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness but died later on January 5.
Tributes poured in on social media. Her mother Heather Teale wrote on Facebook: ‘My beautiful Daughter Bethany Walker was taken from me.
Miss Walker wanted to study midwifery and was due to head for Aberdeen University later this year.
Melanie Coombs, 56, who defied her death sentence and beat terminal cancer three times died from ‘Aussie flu’.
Ms Coombs, from Hailsham, East Sussex, eventually succumbed to pneumonia and passed away in hospital shortly after Christmas.
Her grieving son, Anthony Butler, 30, believes the deadly H3N2 strain of influenza A, dubbed ‘Aussie flu’ was responsible for his mother’s eventual death.
Speaking about his ‘inspirational’ mother’s ordeal for the first time, he told Mirror Online: ‘She said, “cancer won’t kill me” – and she was right.
Owen Hardy, 95, from Chichester, lost his battle to the bug on January 4. His family said his death is a ‘huge loss for the nation’.
The World War II Spitfire veteran died after contracting one of the killer flu strains that is currently circulating the UK, his grieving daughter revealed.
During his time serving for the RAF in the war, the wing commander’s heroics saw him be awarded the top medal for valour – the Legion d’Honneur.
His heartbroken daughter, Debbie Elliott, told the Chichester Observer: ‘It’s a huge loss. We’re all devastated. He has left a huge gap in all of our lives.
Sean Hughes, from Dublin, died from the ‘flu’ on January 12, his heartbroken parents revealed days after.
The 15-year-old, who was an aspiring rapper, passed away in hospital after being rushed for emergency treatment the evening before.
Doctors were adamant Sean, known to his friends as Lil’ Red, had the flu when they saw him on Wednesday.
Tributes flooded in for Sean, who was ‘loved by everyone’ and described as a ‘larger-than-life young man’ who was ‘way ahead of his years’.
The rocketing number of flu cases in the UK has been put down to a surge in four aggressive subtypes attacking the population simultaneously.
One includes the so-called ‘Aussie flu’, a strain of influenza A which triggered triple the number of expected cases in Australia during the country’s winter.
Experts fear the virulent H3N2 strain could prove as deadly to humanity as the Hong Kong flu in 1968, which killed one million people.
Another is a strain of influenza B, called Yamagata and dubbed ‘Japanese flu’, which has been blamed for the majority of cases so far this winter.
Its rapid spread has raised concerns because it is not covered in a vaccine given to the elderly. However, experts claim it is less severe.
Usually, just one subtype, of either influenza A or B, is responsible for the majority of cases. The bug spreads easily in the cold weather.
Health bosses blamed the rapidly escalating cases of flu for their controversial decision to cancel 55,000 operations at the beginning of January.
The same move was also made by French officials as the European country also battled an epidemic of ‘exceptional magnitude’.