COLUMBUS — On March 14, Matt Vaughan, a top executive at Battelle, the Columbus science and technology firm, was working late on a Saturday when he got an email from a colleague.
A Battelle engineer, Kevin Hommema, said his wife, a doctor at a Columbus hospital, was worried about a shortage of protective masks in light of the coronavirus pandemic. He said the problem could be addressed using technology Battelle had developed a few years before to disinfect and re-use masks exactly for that reason, but never scaled up for use.
Hommema had emailed earlier in the day. But Vaughan, Battelle’s senior vice-president of contract research, had skimmed it, busy with other problems related with COVID-19, he said.
“At 10:08 that night, my email lit up,” Vaughan recalled in an interview. “It said, ‘Hey Matt, we need to do this right now. Let’s get going.’ I said ‘That’s right.’ We corralled the team, we got working on it that Sunday and haven’t stopped working since.”
Less than three weeks later, Battelle’s technology has been approved by the FDA — with Gov. Mike DeWine publicly enlisting President Donald Trump’s intervention in fast-tracking the technology — and is being used to clean masks at a global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, New York City.
It’s also being used in Ohio. A system is set up at Battelle’s headquarters in Columbus, available to any hospital in the state.
A system is en route to Seattle, another COVID-19 hot-spot, and Battelle plans to send them elsewhere as soon as they can be built. There’s widespread interest in the machines, including from the military and the Veterans Affairs hospitals, Vaughan said.
“Our commitment is to ensure that communities in Ohio are served first with technology that was born right here in Ohio, and yet we’re working really fast to meet the nation’s needs across the whole country,” Vaughan said.
Battelle first performed the research behind the technology for the FDA in 2015. The project specifically contemplated a scenario in which an influenza epidemic leads to a shortage of respirator masks used by health-care workers for protection. The masks could be used in an emergency to buy time, offering protection to health-care workers while more masks are manufactured.
Each device, capable of cleaning up to 20,000 masks per day, looks similar to a shipping container. As many as four can run off a common generator, meaning a full system can sanitize 80,000 masks per day.
Inside each container are two chambers. The first chamber is an airlock, where the air is sealed off from the outside. Technicians, carrying bags of contaminated masks, step in here first.
The second, inner chamber is where technicians load masks into racks, sealing it behind them when they’re done. Each cycle can handle up to 10,000 masks.
After the technician leaves, the machine pumps in vaporized hydrogen peroxide, an antiseptic chemical, for a set amount of time, until the masks are sanitized.
On the way out, the technician is sprayed with alcohol, which decontaminates them.
After the process is over, usually about 2 1/2 hours later, the air is sucked out of the chamber and filtered, and technicians go back inside, get the masks and repackage them.
The loads of masks come in boxes, shipped directly from hospitals. They’re generally returned the next day. “Just like your dry cleaning,” Vaughan said.
Under the parameters approved by the FDA, each mask can be cleaned up to 20 times before it must be destroyed. Technicians mark the number of times a mask has been cleaned with a sharpie, so health-care workers can see, while a computerized system keeps track of entire batches.
The technology first made the news on Saturday, March 28, when Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine touted it as a breakthrough technology on the brink of approval, capable of cleaning 80,000 masks and helping mitigate the national shortage of respirator masks.
That night, the FDA granted only limited approval for its use, requiring it only to be used at Battelle’s headquarters in Columbus and only for 10,000 masks a day.
Following pressure from DeWine, who announced an impromptu press conference on Sunday morning and called the White House, the FDA fast-tracked it for full approval later that night. One system was already built and deployed to New York City, and another was up and running in Columbus.
By March 31, Jenny Marshall, an emergency-room nurse at Riverside Hospital in Columbus, posted her thanks on Twitter.
“We’d done the science,” Vaughan said. “What we had never done was turn it into a full-scale, deployable system. We designed and built this full end-to-end system in just over a week. All we had before that was science, proven and validated, and we turned that into systems being deployed all over the country. And that’s just an amazing accomplishment this team has put together.”