Researchers have created an individual biocontainment unit (IBU) that uses negative pressure to suction the air from around a patient and filter out viral particles. This prevents environmental contamination and limits exposure to SARS-CoV-2. In addition to guarding against COVID-19, the IBU could be rapidly deployed to isolate patients with any respiratory illness such as influenza, MERS, or tuberculosis.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, initial approaches to minimize viral spread involved the use of plexiglass barriers, such as intubation boxes, to limit healthcare worker exposure when inserting a breathing tube in a patient’s throat. While these barriers may mitigate exposure to larger droplets, the research team hypothesized that they do little to stop the spread of smaller aerosolized viral particles.

The prototype IBU was tested by performing simulated medical procedures. Using validated techniques adopted from the medical research laboratory community, they tested the IBU and a plexiglass intubation box for their ability to contain virus-sized particles from a simulated COVID-19 patient. Greater than 99.99% of the virus-sized aerosols were trapped by the IBU and prevented from escaping into the room. When the passive intubation box was tested, the researchers observed more than three times the aerosol concentration outside the box — where the healthcare provider is located — than inside the box.

The team is actively developing a portable vacuum and filter system that can run on a battery pack for use in environments where energy resources are limited, which is of particular interest for military and humanitarian applications. The ability to isolate COVID-19 patients at the bedside is key to stopping viral spread in medical facilities and onboard military ships and aircraft, particularly to limit transmission through close quarters or shared ventilation systems.

For more information, contact the U.S. Army CCDC Army Research Laboratory Public Affairs at 703-693-6477.