Man who helped create one of the most widely used masks says some may spread the virus

Medical Watch

When it comes to masks, the one you are wearing may actually spread the virus.

The critical COVID-19 information comes from Dr Peter Tsai, the man who helped invent the substance behind one of the most popular face coverings, the N95 mask.

His brilliant mind came up with an invention that’s protecting countless healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is not what I expected in the very beginning when I invented this technology,” he said.

It’s been a humbling experience him. He invented the electrostatic-charged microfiber used for the N95 when he was a materials scientist at the University of Tennessee in the 1990s. Originally intended for construction workers, the air filtration system attracts and captures tiny particles, even viral particles.

“There was SARS so people already had the experience that N95 could be used to protect against the virus,” he said. “2007 Bird Flu, 2009 Swine Flu, then 2010 MERS. People already had experience to use N95 and now pandemic of COVID-19.”

He retired two years ago, but fellow researchers and manufacturers began calling the inventor when the pandemic struck. This devoted scientist could not say no.

“Up to my retirement I tried to get relaxed. But still people from the industries approached me, so I have been working with them,” Tsai said.

First, he thought about ways to sterilize the masks so they could be reused. He conducted experiments at his home, including one in his van using a generator to heat the material. If he couldn’t run a certain test himself, he called on friends in the business.

“One night when I thought about it, I jumped out of the bed and I called my colleague to do the experiment,” he said.

He’s helped out at Oak Ridge National Lab, where scientists are working on ways to ramp up manufacturing.

“I’ve received a lot of questions and I have more work than before my retirement,” he said.

He offered guidance on the proper N95 to wear during the pandemic. He said it is not the version that contains an exhalation valve.

“The kind of respirator with a valve … is not suitable for pandemic use because this only protects the wearer,” he said. “It does not protect others because the valve opens when you exhale.”

He’s devoted countless hours to sharing his expertise and educating others but Tsai isn’t collecting a paycheck for his efforts. He said some people have asked him why doesn’t get paid.

“I think it‘s more valuable to help people and to save lives than to get paid,” he said. “And people told me, ‘Since you are retired, you can just walk away.’ I said, ‘Yes I could do that but I will regret if I could do something I did not do to help people and that I will regret in the rest of my life.”

Tsai said he plans to continue helping out as long as he’s needed.

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