Antiviral Clothing Aims to Shield Against COVID-19

PROTX2 AV chemical disrupts the virus’s ability to replicate.

(Image courtesy of Fast Company.)

(Image courtesy of Fast Company.)

2020 is the year we clamored to buy consumer products that we would never have given a second thought to previously. Disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer? Yes, please. A transparent face mask? Add to cart.

As scientists race to develop a vaccine that will finally put the COVID-19 era to an end, a Canadian biotech company has introduced yet another commodity to safeguard against infection: antiviral fabric.

Toronto-based Intelligent Fabric Technologies (North America) Inc. (IFTNA), a subsidiary of iFabric Corp., has innovated a chemical treatment for textiles that has proven effective against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The first line of COVID-impairing apparel is projected to be available this fall.

Antimicrobial fabrics are not a new concept. IFTNA has been creating antibacterial chemical treatments for textile firms serving the medical, athletic, military, hospitality, home furnishings, and consumer and corporate apparel industries since 2008. Hospital workers have been donning antibacterial scrubs for years, to protect against bacteria, which has the ability to reproduce on surfaces without a living host. Since this is not typically the case with viruses, there hasn’t been much demand for antiviral textiles—until now, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

How Does IFTNA’s Technology Work?

IFTNA’s proprietary antiviral chemical, PROTX2 AV (pronounced “pro-tex”), is coated onto fabric toward the end of the textile manufacturing process. When it comes in contact with the novel coronavirus, PROTX2 AV penetrates the fatty outer shell of the virus, destroying its replication process.

The PROTX2 AV chemical breaks through the fatty molecules that constitute the outer shell of the virus. (Image courtesy of The Conversation.)

The PROTX2 AV chemical breaks through the fatty molecules that constitute the outer shell of the virus. (Image courtesy of The Conversation.)

Fabrics treated with PROTX2 AV have demonstrated a 99.9 percent reduction in active viral loads of COVID-19—representing an over 1,000-fold reduction in comparison to untreated fabric. The chemical has been found to deactivate COVID-19 at time points of 10 minutes, 1 hour, 6 hours and 24 hours—signifying residual protection for one day.

The PROTX2 AV clothing is good for 30 washes, after which point the solution becomes less efficient.

Important Testing Considerations

Against the backdrop of the global pandemic, many antimicrobial textile companies have made advertising claims that their products offer protection against the “coronavirus.” What the uninformed consumer may fail to notice is that the fine print of these companies’ websites does not include SARS-CoV-2, and the listed viruses are all the non-COVID-19 varieties—potentially giving consumers a false sense of security. Viruses don’t react the same way to the same chemicals. And while there are several types of coronaviruses that can affect humans, only the SARS-CoV-2 causes COVID-19.

As such, it is meaningful that the testing of IFTNA’s PROTX2-AV-treated fabric has been conducted specifically against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

“We’d searched everywhere for anyone who could test for COVID, specifically,” says Giancarlo Beevis, CEO of IFTNA. “We weren’t interested in testing it against the human coronavirus, which our competitors were doing, because to us it didn’t have value. We wanted to deal with the pandemic.”

Why were other companies so reluctant to test for COVID-19? According to Beevis, testing can be difficult because COVID-19 is known to replicate faster and stay on surfaces longer than other viruses. Passing a COVID-19 test on a dry textile can be additionally challenging because antimicrobial fabrics often need moisture, such as sweat or ambient water vapor, to activate.

IFTNA’s chemically treated fabric was finally tested with successful results at an internationally accredited, independent laboratory in Asia, under American Association of Textile Chemists standards—making PROTX2 AV the first antimicrobial textile chemical to be proven, via U.S. accepted testing codes, to deactivate the SARS-CoV-2 virus. According to IFTNA’s website, tests have also been conducted against the following pathogens: MRSA, Staph, C-Diff, VRE, E. Coli, Norovirus, H1N1, and Influenza A & B. Further efficacy testing has been carried out against the human coronavirus (type 229E) by an internationally recognized, independent laboratory in the United States.

IFTNA is now awaiting emergency regulatory approvals from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Health Canada, in order to ensure that the product is safe and effective for both users and the environment.

What Are the Potential Applications?

Medical clothing for frontline hospital workers is an obvious one.

“It’s really difficult to disinfect a textile versus, let’s say, a stainless steel surface that you may see in healthcare,” asserts Dr. Amber Mitchell, an infectious disease expert. “Lab coats tend to stick around in the facility. They’ll go on the back of a door hanger. And then that lab coat is [worn] over and over and over again.”

Careismatic Brands, a global healthcare apparel company that manufactures the Cherokee and Dickies brands, is already verifying tests in anticipation of creating antiviral products including scrubs, lab coats, gowns and masks.

IFTNA’s chemical technology could even morph into a much-needed travel line. Well-known companies such as North Face are in the process of designing PROTX2 AV-treated collections, while South Korea’s Okyung is developing PROTX2 AV-treated personal protective equipment (PPE), military uniforms, medical dressings, and car and aircraft seats.

IFTNA has already collaborated with Under Armour to release a PROTX2 AV-treated face mask designed specifically for athletes. The company is now in the final stages of readying a PROTX2 AV laundry additive by the fall. IFTNA also expects to launch its own PPE along with its lifestyle travel brand, Underit, by late 2020 or early 2021.

Deonte Harris from the New Orleans Saints says the Under Armour face mask provides “the reassurance of an additional level of protection.” (Image courtesy of Forbes.)

Deonte Harris from the New Orleans Saints says the Under Armour face mask provides “the reassurance of an additional level of protection.” (Image courtesy of Forbes.)

“The antimicrobial textile market is going to be one of the rare markets that is not only having a short-term bounce from the COVID pandemic, but will experience long-term growth,” predicts Scott Pantel, CEO of Life Science Intelligence, an independent medical technology analysis firm. Market analysts similarly anticipate that the antimicrobial textile market will surpass $20.5 billion by 2026.

What Are the Skeptics Saying?

Some infectious disease experts do not share the optimism when it comes to the significance of antiviral clothing.

“Unless you’re licking your pants, no one is getting COVID-19 from their clothing,” argues Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, professor of medicine at Harvard and chief of the infectious diseases division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “I would like to see a study showing that the pants [made with the new antiviral fabrics] were as effective as hand sanitizer in preventing transmissions—not in killing the virus, but in preventing transmissions.”

Kuritzkes adds, “I’m sure the material does inactivate the virus—but if so, so what? You’d still get [COVID-19] the way everyone else is getting COVID-19.”

Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) consider person-to-person contact with respiratory droplets (produced while talking, sneezing or coughing) to be the primary mode of coronavirus transmission.

“The numbers of cases of COVID-19 transmitted by people who happened to touch a surface where someone recently sneezed—cases that might be prevented by wiping your hands on an antiviral fabric—are minuscule compared with the cases transmitted by droplet transmissions,” Kuritzkes stresses. “That’s why the CDC has deemphasized surface transmission.”

As such, it would be wise to consider antiviral clothing an enhancement—rather than a replacement—of safety protocols such as hand-washing, social distancing and mask-wearing. If anything, COVID-19-fighting apparel could offer peace of mind to those wearing it.

“As people start to go back to work and we try to restart our economy, they want to feel protected,” maintains Beevis. “If we can give them another tool to help them, it’s a win.”