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HEALTH

German start-up in global demand with anti-coronavirus UV light treatment

Tanja Nickel and Katharina Obladen were still in high school when they patented an idea to disinfect escalator handrails using UV light.

German start-up in global demand with anti-coronavirus UV light treatment
Photo: DPA

A decade later, their small German start-up UVIS can barely keep up with orders from around the world for their coronavirus-killing escalators and coatings for supermarket trolleys and elevator buttons.

“Everybody wants it done yesterday,” Obladen, 28, told AFP at the company's workshop in central Cologne.

“The pandemic has made businesses realise they need to invest in hygiene precautions for staff and customers. It's gone from nice-to-have to must-have.”

As Germany begins to relax some lockdown restrictions, the start-up's five-person team has been inundated with requests from shops, offices and cafes eager to reopen to a public newly aware of the health risks lurking in shared spaces.

Contest

Friends since kindergarten, Nickel and Obladen were 17 and 18 years old when they entered an inventors' competition.

Worried about the swine flu pandemic at the time, they wanted to come up with something to make public places germ-free.

Inspired by New York City's use of ultraviolet radiation to sterilise drinking water, they designed a UV light box that can be built into escalators to disinfect handrails, with the radiation destroying the DNA of disease-causing micro-organisms.

They asked their families for help filing the patent.

“They knew us and knew we would stick with it,” Obladen recalled. After finishing university, the pair founded UVIS in 2016 with seed money from programmes for start-ups.

They remain a rare example in Germany of women running an engineering firm. This year, the duo added an antimicrobial coating to their line-up, not based on UV technology.

The invisible coating can be sprayed onto surfaces to destroy mould, bacteria and viruses like the novel coronavirus, using the self-cleaning properties of titanium dioxide.

Dangerous 

Europe's largest elevator and escalator makers — Thyssenkrupp, Schindler, Otis and Kone — were early customers, putting the women's ultraviolet light boxes, called Escalite modules, in escalators in malls, hospitals and train stations.

But the coronavirus has seen demand explode. “We've already surpassed our revenue target for 2020,” said 27-year-old Nickel, declining to give figures. Interest has been especially strong in Europe and Asia.

The start-up recently shipped over 30 escalator modules to Singapore.

Standing in the same workshop where her electrician grandfather used to tinker away and where his old hard hats still line the shelves, Obladen demonstrated how the light box works.

Three blue-glowing UVC lamps, emitting the strongest kind of UV beams and highly dangerous when exposed to skin and eyes, line the inside of a rectangular metal case.

The escalator's handrail passes through the case as it continually loops around, getting a full blast of germ-killing radiation.

The metal case, roughly the size of an adult arm, and an accompanying power box can be fitted into any escalator, which Obladen said was “the biggest challenge”.

UV disinfection was already routinely used in the food industry and hospitals worldwide before COVID-19 spurred wider calls for the technology.

In China, where the virus first emerged, it has been used to clean buses and banknotes. Obladen said they too were considering other ways to deploy UVC light, but that safety comes first.

US President Donald Trump recently suggested using UV rays on coronavirus patients, prompting stunned medical experts to warn it could cause burns and skin cancer.

The World Health Organization also warns against using UV lamps on skin. 

New ideas 

Obladen said joy at the company's boom has been “dampened” by concern over the pandemic and the struggles of friends in other start-ups.

Looking ahead, Obladen and Nickel plan to ramp up production capacity and expand their coating services.

They have already been busily spraying elevator panels, counter tops and seats for a range of soon-to-reopen businesses, as well as handles of supermarket trolleys.

“We're looking at other areas too, we've had a bank asking about using UV light to disinfect money in cash machines in combination with a coating for the touchscreen,” Obladen said.

“It's exciting to think about new ways to use our know-how.”

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COVID-19

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany. 

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