Imagine a world where people travel as they wish. They shake hands when they make new acquaintances, embrace when they greet close friends and elderly relatives. They do not bother to laboriously disinfect their work surfaces, or wash their hands once they have dealt with the post. They go shopping as they please and find no shortage of provisions. They work in offices, laboratories, shops, restaurants and building sites. They conduct meetings in person, and think nothing of it when they jet off to their favourite holiday destination. They do all this because a COVID-19 vaccine has been developed, rolled out and administered to the entire populace, making all the chaos of 2020 a distant memory. Everything is back to normal.
This is the ending to the coronavirus pandemic we are all hoping for, and, give or take some of the details, there is no reason why it is not possible. But even in this optimistic scenario, there is a deep fear among scientists and policy makers: what happens next time? For if there is one lesson that COVID-19 has taught us, it is that our modern lifestyles are fatally ill-suited to the emergence of novel viruses – and novel viruses there will always be. Any drugs and vaccines we develop for COVID-19 will be ineffectual against the next viral pandemic, which may well consist of a different family of virus altogether. Indeed, unless anything in our approach to pandemics changes, the next one will entail another psychologically and economically crippling lockdown while scientists find a cure – however long that takes.
Yet according to one scientist, there is something we can do differently next time. Charlie Ironside of Curtin University in Perth, Australia, is not a virologist or an epidemiologist but a physicist – one who has spent 30 years specializing in semiconductor optoelectronics. His solution: far-ultraviolet light-emitting diodes (far-UV LEDs).