Quarantine and treatment facilities are being set up across the world for COVID-19 patients as countries race against time to arrest further spread of the dangerous contagion.

With the number of those infected crossing 169,000 and increasing by the hour, and newer countries joining the affected list, governments across the world are combining new regulations with best practice to fight the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). One aspect that may not be getting sufficient attention is the issue of ‘building exhaust’, which may be releasing the virus into the atmosphere.

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis are exploring the idea of using portable furnaces to sterilise contaminated building exhaust emanating from isolation and treatment centres in an effort to prevent airborne infections.

The built environment has a critical role to play in the containment of infectious diseases. If one were to track the origin and spread of COVID-19, the seafood market in Wuhan, China was identified as the likely source of the infection that affected many early cases. Additionally, buildings that saw high traffic and people movement such as airports, hospitals and similar environments became points of virus transmission.

Hongxi Yin, the InCEES associate professor in advanced building systems and architectural design in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, who is also lead researcher on this study, says fire has been used by humans since ancient times to tackle infectious diseases. Temporary treatment centres set up in Wuhan also used portable furnaces to burn clothes, medical waste and other potential sources of infection. However, the exhaust from these treatment facilities was simply released into the atmosphere without any pre-treatment.

While this is standard architectural practice even in permanent medical facilities, the current pandemic situation demands that building exhaust gets more care and attention. Yin, who is familiar with Wuhan’s medical and architectural communities, wonders whether the high concentration of the COVID-19 virus in building exhaust triggered the fast spread of the disease amongst the dense population, killing people quickly.

After researching similar viruses including the SARS coronavirus (China, 2002); a highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) virus; and certain forms of influenza, which can survive for kilometres in the air, the team has estimated that subjecting building exhaust to 125°C temperatures for three seconds before releasing it into the outside atmosphere would deactivate 99.999% of COVID-19.

However, further study is needed on the mechanisms of COVID-19 transmission, and its susceptibility to heat.

In the meantime, buildings, especially in the healthcare sector, could sterilise their exhaust without replacing their HVAC systems, using a natural gas boiler system, including a combustion furnace, a tube-and-shell air to air heat exchanger, and associated controls.

While logistical concerns are being raised in terms of integrating the furnace system, Yin hopes the results of their study will come in use when designing temporary treatment centres for epidemics in future.

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