At a store near you perhaps are bales of fabric that weave in the promise of killing the coronavirus, innovations tailored for pandemic times by prominent players in the textile industry but viewed with scepticism by the scientific fraternity.
In the last few months, at least four textile brands have come out with technology-infused fabrics that they claim kill the virus shortly after it lands on the surface. At a time when businesses big and small struggle to stay afloat with spending power diminished and no appetite for new clothes or shopping of any kind, these companies may just have cracked the code to stay relevant.
Their fabrics, they hope, can contribute towards reducing the spread of COVID-19 that till Thursday had infected more than 9,65,000 people across India and claimed almost 25,000 lives.
“While we do wear masks and gloves and take proper and due sanitation measures, it’s important that our attire also aids our protection. Clothing provides a large hosting surface area for bacteria and viruses, benefiting their carryover,” said Rajendra Agarwal, managing director at Donear Industries.
His company launched an “anti-corona” fabric in April, which uses “neo-technology” to render the virus ineffective.
Tested in Melbourne, the technology, he said, is proven to be effective against SARS-CoV-2 in the laboratory and involves two steps.
First, the fabric is treated with small silver particles that are “potent antibacterial and antiviral agents”. Due to their unique chemical and physical properties, the silver particles attract the “oppositely charged” virus like a magnet, thereby immobilising the virus, Agarwal explained.
Second, the “fatty vesicle” technology helps deplete the viral membrane and completely destroying the virus, he added.
In June, Austria-headquartered Lenzing collaborated with India’s Ruby Mills to launch fabrics laden with H+ technology, which they described as “a combination of a high-performance active agent and a proprietary in-house process that effectively embeds the active agents onto a fabric”.
“The virus is an RNA enveloped by a lipid membrane. When the virus lands on the fabric surface, which is embedded with the H+ Technology, the action gets initiated.
"The H+ Technology’s active agents break down the lipid membrane of the virus and leave the RNA exposed. This renders the virus ineffective,” Ruby Mills spokesperson Rishabh Shah explained.
RNA is the genetic material of viruses.
He added that the technology also ensures that the fabric retains its anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties even after multiple washes.
Lenzing’s South Asia commercial head Avinash Mane said the H+ technology fabric, which can be fashioned into everyday wear, is available at about 10 per cent more than the “normal versions”.
Among the other brands that are experimenting in the area are Siyaram’s and Arvind Limited.
To make the product more accessible, Ruby Mills and Lenzing said their fabric can be used to make not just hospital uniforms, bedsheets, PPEs and masks but also everyday wear garments, including formal clothing as well as Indian ethnic wear.
The feel of the fabric, in solids and prints, would be the same, they said. H+ technology is available across a wide range of fabrics, including viscose, polyesters, linens and cottons, the companies claimed.
DONEAR too said their neo-technology fabric can be tailored to any garment of choice — from suits and shirts to skirts and blouses. It is also available in a variety of fabrics, including cottons, polyblends, worsteds and non-wovens.
The companies are hoping perhaps that their anti-corona fabrics will sell out the way sanitisers, masks and hand soaps did in the first few weeks of the pandemic, and experts, though sceptical, said the product might be tempting for many.
“I suspect the trigger (behind developing anti-corona fabric) is partly the feeling that the Indian customer will be eager to buy any product that claims to be protective against COVID-19,” said Gautam Menon, professor of Physics and Biology at Ashoka University.
According to entrepreneur-turned-academician Kaustubh Dhargalkar, brands tend to exploit customer mindsets to launch new products.
In the present situation, the brands are targeting people living in fear and anxiety.
While it is too soon to determine the popularity of these fabrics among consumers, Dhargalkar predicted that high risk communities like the elderly, children, those with comorbidities are likely to find a product such as this tempting.
“There might be an initial surge in purchases, but how long it sustains can only be found out at a later stage,” said Dhargalkar, author of “It’s Logical: Innovating Profitible Business Models”.
While there may be takers initially, the issue of how long the virus survives on soft surfaces such as fabrics is still to be determined. The best way out is still hygiene and washing clothes with detergent, said several scientists and medical experts.
Alpana Razdan, lab head at the Genestrings Diagnostic Centre, said there is no evidence to suggest that clothes act as a “major vehicle spread” for the new coronavirus.
“What, however, is known is that the virus needs some moisture to survive, so one precaution to take is keeping fabrics as moisture-free as possible, so frequent washing and drying will be your best friend,” she said.
Mrinal Sircar, director of pulmonology at Fortis Hospital (Noida), agreed.
“Even if the clothes are infected, unless one touches their face after touching the infected cloth, they will not get infected. For those who are worried their clothes are carrying the virus, a quick wash with detergent will kill the virus,” she said.
For Menon too, the primary concern is not if and for how long the virus can survive on fabrics, but the likelihood of its transmission.
“There is some work that studies this aspect (contracting the virus from fabrics), certainly, but none of this is in the real-world conditions that we encounter.
“The problem is not so much the presence of virus on your clothes, but with transferring it to your mouth or nose while it survives on these surfaces. This is where the hygiene you practice is important,” he said.
Microbiologist Ashutosh Rawat argued that an “anti-corona fabric” does not “make much sense” for people who are not frequenting areas with high virus load.
“The recommended material for PPE gowns for those working with corona patients is non-woven polypropylene melt blown fabric. The gsm (grams per square metre) specifications vary when working in a high risk area where viral load is expected to be high.
“To wear clothes of such a fabric in routine is out of question,” asserted the consultant microbiologist at Ghaziabad’s Columbia Asia hospital.
A March 2020 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine looked at the possibility of people contracting the coronavirus through aerosols as well as by coming in contact with contaminated surfaces.
It discovered that the virus could be detected in aerosols for up to three hours. On solid surfaces like copper, cardboard and plastic, it could survive for as long as four hours, 24 hours, and two to three days respectively.
The study, however, did not include fabrics.
Shedding more light on the virus-fabric equation, Lisa Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention at the Johns Hopkins University in the US, has said in a blogpost that existing evidence suggests that “the virus does not survive as well on a soft surface (such as fabric) as it does on frequently touched hard surfaces like elevator buttons and door handles”.