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3 February, 2020 - 10:41 By Tony Quested

Cambridge Mask Co. ramps production to help combat coronavirus epidemic

Face masks made by a Cambridge company and based on military-standard technology have triggered a massive ramp-up in production worldwide as customers cumulatively try to order millions of them to counter the threat of the coronavirus.

Christopher Dobbing, founder and CEO of Cambridge Mask Co. tells Business Weekly that the company has been deluged by “an unprecedented and overwhelming flood of demand.”

He says the company is ramping production in China and Indonesia to try to meet some of the demand but says it will be impossible to fulfil some orders which scale as high as 10 million in one case.

Dobbing says: “Our masks use a special technology developed by the British military for chemical, nuclear and biological warfare protection and are tested to filter an average 99.6 per cent of viruses. That makes them perfect for coronavirus protection.

“Our small team is coping with 1,100 messages per day from customers wanting masks and we have 20,000 daily website visitors and 200+ calls to our office.

“Everything is 20-30x what would be normal for us. We are ramping up production at our factories in China and Indonesia to try and meet some of the demand. 

“I have had requests for 500,000, three million and even 10 million masks – which we could never dream of filling. That's over 100 x 40 ft containers worth! 

“We are taking pre-orders on our website for delivery mid-March and have nearly 4,500 orders received and in production.”

Cambridge companies are heavily embroiled in coronavirus initiatives. The epidemic has prompted organisers of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona near the end of February to reassure prospective Cambridge and other UK and global attendees that they will be protected by additional medical staff on the spot and enhanced sanitisation controls to protect them from contracting the potentially fatal coronavirus.

MWC organiser GSMA is working to World Health Organisation guidelines and has announced increased cleaning and disinfection programme across all high-volume touchpoints, e.g. catering areas, surfaces, handrails, WCs, entrances/exits, public touch-screens, etc. along with the use of correct cleaning/sanitising materials and products. They are also liaising with local hotels, shops and eateries to ensure high cleanliness and disinfectant standards are maintained throughout the city.

MWC is the premier showcase for many UK technology companies and Cambridge is traditionally represented in high numbers.

Cambridge BioMedtech businesses are already in the front line of the battle against the virus. As Business Weekly flagged up on January 30, Novacyt has already launched a novel research-only coronavirus test developed by its molecular diagnostics division, Primerdesign as a direct response to the recent outbreak of the respiratory virus in China.

The Primerdesign coronavirus test has the ability to detect only the 2019 strain of the virus, which the company believes differentiates it from other current tests which are less specific and may also react to other related species giving rise to a false diagnosis. 

The Primerdesign test is also said to be stable at ambient temperatures, which eliminates the need for cold chain shipping in tropical climates and therefore improves the efficiency of the test and reduces transport costs.

Novacyt CEO Graham Mullis

Graham Mullis, CEO of Novacyt said. “Over the last few days, we have seen significant early demand for our genesig® 2019-nCoV test from over 10 countries.”

Cambridge startup ET-traps Ltd believes its technology could also prove valuable in fighting the outbreak. 

Founder and CEO Dr Arjun Jain tells Business Weekly: “The US NIH has suggested that a vaccine might be available for testing in humans in about three months, which represents an unprecedented speed of development. This has been enabled by technology for rapid genetic analysis of the virus, and prompt action by governments to begin a vaccine development programme.

“The therapeutic tool we are working on may be used as a treatment for the virus. We have produced two papers to support our view: The first discusses how interferon levels are increased in people infected with the virus.The second discusses how interferon is an inducer of endothelin(ET)-1. Hence, the ET-traps which have been shown to potently sequester ET-1 levels would serve as a potential therapeutic.

“This and the potential use of ET-traps for HIV-AIDS has been discussed in a recent paper we are writing. The race is on to make a therapeutic for this virus and we think that our ET-traps may be used.”

The technology focuses on sequestering pathologically elevated levels of Endothelin-1 in different diseases.

The company is developing a therapeutic targeting elevated endothelin-1 levels that may be used in different cancers, neurodegenerative diseases, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and pregnancy disorders.

Nigel Whittle

How worried should we be by the coronavirus epidemic? Very, according to Dr Nigel Whittle, head of Medical & Healthcare at Cambridge tech consultancy Plextek.

He said: “Scientists at Imperial College recently estimated that about 100,000 people around the world may already be infected with the new coronavirus and that each infected patient can infect on average 2.6 others – about the same rate as in annual influenza outbreaks. 

“Worryingly there is concern that the coronavirus can be passed on during the disease's incubation period, which means that someone who is ill but not yet displaying any symptoms could transmit the infection. 

“A current count of more than 100 deaths out of 6,000 reported cases implies a 1.7 per cent mortality rate, compared with seasonal influenza (which causes about 400,000 deaths each year globally) with a mortality rate well below 1 per cent.  

“One of the first lines of defence is monitoring airline passengers flying in from areas where the virus is active, often using thermal imaging cameras to detect fever, in an attempt to identify people who have symptoms. 

“The problem is that only those who are already ill will be picked up, although it is thought that the incubation period is days, rather than weeks. 

“More draconian measures such as those instigated by China to effectively quarantine tens of millions of people may help to slow the progress of the disease but may not be enough to stop the virus spreading.

“Will surgical masks slow the spread? One of the defining images of large respiratory disease outbreaks is people wearing surgical masks in the street, and this one is no different, most notably in China where they are also worn to protect against pollution. 

“Many other cities in Asia are already reporting masks flying from the shelves leading to shortages in the shops. But do these masks offer any protection for the wearer? 

“The coronavirus is spread by droplets in the air produced when an infected individual coughs or sneezes, but it is also spread by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.

“This means that it is more likely for a person to become infected if they in close continuous contact with someone who is infected rather than a casual interaction on the street. 

“In reality, the thin material in masks does little to stop respiratory viruses spreading, and masks have to be worn correctly, changed frequently and disposed of safely in order to work properly. There is however some limited evidence that suggests masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions.

“As this is a viral disease, antibiotics are not an effective treatment and standard anti-viral drugs used against influenza will not work. So far, recovery has been very dependent on the strength of patients’ immune system, and many of those who died are known to have suffered from poor health. 

“Unlike influenza, there is no currently available vaccine, which means it is more difficult to protect vulnerable members of the population. Much like SARS in 2003, the current coronavirus outbreak has caught local and global health systems by surprise, but it remains to be seen what the final impact of the epidemic will be on the world’s population.”

• Photographs courtesy of Plextek

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