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Saturday, October 24, 2020

Academics & Research

‘I’m absolutely petrified’: UH professor growing desperate as tide-turning coronavirus invention awaits FDA approval


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Desperation has defined Seamus Curran’s time in quarantine.

In the past six weeks, the latter half of which he’s spent hunkered down in his Pearland home, the UH physics professor has made groundbreaking developments that could turn the tides in the fight against the new coronavirus.

His invention, a hydrophobic coating that can protect N95 masks and other fabrics from the virus, can help stop the spread among medical workers, thousands of whom have already been infected in the United States.

With Food and Drug Administration approval, Curran and his team could manufacture 300-400 gallons a day, which could coat about 12,000 masks daily. 

It’d save lives, he said, better protecting those at the frontlines of a disease that has killed over 20,000 in the U.S. 

It’d be a game-changer.

But without the rubber stamp, which a distressed Curran is still waiting for, his invention is helping nobody.

And it’s eating at him.

‘I feel it in my soul’

As the numbers of infected continue rising, surpassing half a million in the U.S. and over 4,600 in the Houston area, Curran worries of the effects of not having the coating in widespread use sooner rather than later.

“Every day that our product is not out there,” he said, “I feel it in my soul that it is a day we are not saving people.”

On Friday alone, the United States saw over 2,000 coronavirus-related deaths, the highest daily total since the outbreak began in late January.

Adding to his worries is the notion that some Texans aren’t taking the social distancing recommendations from local officials seriously.

“When this thing hits the fan here, we’re in some serious trouble,” he said. “I am petrified by this. I am absolutely petrified.”

Although Houston, unlike other major cities like New York and New Orleans, has been spared from high infection rates and death tolls, Curran warns things could get much worse if proper measures are not taken.

“You go outside in the Greater Houston area, you can find plenty of people mingling around,” Curran said. “We haven’t seen it, yet.

“When it eventually hits, it’s going to hit us like a hammer.”

Duty calls

It didn’t take much for Curran to see how bad the situation could get in the United States.

Global shortages of medical masks, face shields and other personal protective equipment vital to medical workers became apparent in early February.

“The world is facing severe disruption in the market for personal protective equipment,” warned World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Feb.7.

Seeing the issues spread to familiar countries like Italy, France and the United Kingdom grew Curran’s worries and showed the problems were in “not just Wuhan,” the Chinese city where the outbreak began.

Then it hit home in a fever pitch.

Panic buying led to masks flying off the shelf.

A couple of weeks ago, hospitals began asking nurses and doctors to reuse medical masks.

“I knew almost instantly we needed to jump into action,” Curran said, “So we dusted off a lot of our books.”

Even with the immediate response, Curran, who never imagined he’d be dipping his toes into health care, was caught off guard by how quickly conditions deteriorated in hospitals nationwide.

“I never thought this was something that I’d ever have to do because this is America,” he said. “It doesn’t happen here.

“Except it has.”

Hopes for approval

Curran has joined millions of Americans in practicing social distancing to wait out the crisis and to help stop the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“I’ve been locked up for three weeks without stepping outside,” the 53-year-old said.

But his wait has been different. To his wife’s dismay, the professor has regularly stayed up until 2 or 3 a.m. working, “clocking in about four hours” of sleep.

These nights see Curran searching for anybody he can think of to help expedite the approval process in an effort to keep his team motivated.

On top of the FDA, he has reached out to the Environmental Protection Agency and other organizations.

“We’re hearing crickets,” he said. “We hear silence.”

When he reached out to University officials, there was not much they could do for him either.

“We’re pushing as hard as we can,” Curran said. “Until we get it out there, we’re not going to be happy.”

Although Curran is “desperate to get our stuff out there,” he recognizes the need for patience in the process. 

“We got to make sure we do this properly,” he said. “I just wish doing things properly could have happened a lot quicker.”

Despite the wait, the professor believes his team is “very close to compliance” and getting the approval they need to begin distributing their tide-turning product. 

“The minute we do,” he said, “we can mail our material out there.”

Other advances

Before the pandemic disrupted most everyone’s way of life, Curran had recently developed a nanotechnology material that could be woven into clothing and serve as a health monitor.

Among the many benefits would be the ability to identify slight changes in body temperature before the wearer could even realize.

This would make fever — a common symptom of COVID-19 — easily detectable.

But this project, no matter how innovative, is forced to sit on the backburner, for now.

All the while, Curran is left to wait patiently as his worries continue to mount.

“I can’t even look past next week,” he said. “I don’t know because this world is changing rapidly around me.”

For more of The Cougar’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

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