This $15,000 Air Filter Promises to “Kill” COVID. Is It Worth the Price? – Texas Monthly

This $15,000 Air Filter Promises to “Kill” COVID. Is It Worth the Price? – Texas Monthly

A maskless Rick Perry stood behind a podium at the state capitol last summer, confidently proclaiming that the air in the wood-trimmed room was safe, even as the spread of the coronavirus’s delta variant was surging throughout much of Texas. Behind the former governor was the official state seal, and flanking that seal were two white plastic-encased, oval-shaped machines with glowing green LED strips at the top that made them resemble high-tech kitchen trash cans. Those machines, a pair of souped-up air filtration units marketed as “COVID killers,” were the reason Perry had summoned members of the news media as he returned to the Capitol for just the second time since leaving state office more than six years earlier. “This,” he declared, “is potentially one of the most important press conferences that I ever was engaged with in my life.”

What Perry didn’t say—at least not until a reporter in the room pressed him—was that, as a board member of the company that sells the filters, he has a financial interest in promoting them. Technically called the “Biodefense Indoor Air Protection System,” the units are made by Houston-based Integrated Viral Protection, or IVP. Perry later told Texas Monthly that he owns “a percentage of the company,” though he declined to say how large a stake. (The company’s executive principal, Garrett Peel, says Perry has no equity in IVP but is compensated as a “manufacturer’s representative” for any units he’s directly involved in selling.)

Even before Perry’s admission, the event had begun to feel less like the historic announcement Perry had promised and more like an infomercial on late-night TV. A half-dozen speakers, from scientists to educators to Perry’s fellow politicians to executives of IVP, all touted the company’s product as a “breakthrough” in the fight against COVID-19, lauding its proprietary filtration process, which includes a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter­ and a superheated metal alloy that promises to work like a bug zapper on viral particles, catching and “killing” a scientifically precise–sounding “99.999 percent” of them.

“I can honestly say I can’t imagine starting school last week without these machines in our buildings,” said Taylor Williams, superintendent of the Slidell Independent School District, adding that the units had given teachers and parents confidence that the air would be safe in schools of the rural Wise County district, about an hour north of Fort Worth. Perry echoed that sentiment moments later, confidently declaring in a salesman’s staccato patter, “With this Integrated Viral Protection device, you can literally, and soundly, with science as your guide, say that you are in the safest place that you can be. We’re in the safest place in the Capitol at this particular moment because we’re in this room with this device.”

The price tag for that safety: $4,995 for each of the small units that flanked Perry at the Capitol and $14,999 for the larger, water-heater-sized units that Slidell ISD had bought with taxpayer money to filter air in large gathering spaces, such as cafeterias and auditoriums. Perry suggested that schools across the state should buy IVP’s units by tapping billions of dollars made available through the CARES Act of 2020, a $2.2 trillion federal pandemic-relief bill. Many Texas schools have done just that since Perry gave his blessing to IVP.

It’s hard to argue against investing in devices that can help Texans breathe more safely, especially as the coronavirus continues to spawn variants such as the ultra-infectious omicron. IVP’s air filters have secured the endorsement of both the Texas Hospital Association and the Texas Restaurant Association. Still, it’s worth examining the effectiveness and cost of the IVP system, compared with those of competing products that are highly effective and far less expensive. Some air-quality experts have concluded that the price IVP is fetching from state and federal taxpayers is thousands of dollars per unit too high. 

IVP was founded in early 2020 by 78-year-old Monzer Hourani, the founder and CEO of Houston-based Medistar, one of the leading developers of medical real estate in Texas. Trained as a structural engineer, Hourani conceived of the virus-zapping heated-metal alloy at the heart of IVP’s technology. The company says it racked up $5 million in sales in its first year. Hourani has called his air filtration units “a gift from God,” and has said he believes IVP’s design will “make it safer for people to be together again.”

At least some of those people will be together in structures Hourani has built. Among Medistar’s clients are the Houston-based MD Anderson Cancer Center and St. Luke’s Health, and the St. Joseph Health system in Bryan. Medistar also developed the InterContinental Houston hotel, of which Hourani heads the ownership group, at the Texas Medical Center. (The hotel has installed IVP filters.) Medistar has partnered with Texas A&M to build the school’s new campus at TMC, including space for its engineering medicine program, student housing, and offices, as well as retail. Two other Medistar projects in development include a one-million-square-foot transit hub, including residential, office, and retail space, in downtown Phoenix, and the 326-unit Virtuo Med Center apartment community in Houston.

Some of IVP’s sales have been to health facilities that have done business with Hourani’s Medistar. These include NeuroPsychiatric hospitals in Houston and Conroe, as well as the Dallas-based Steward Health Care System. The Dallas Morning News and American Airlines have bought IVP units too, as have dozens of small businesses that range from restaurants and tattoo parlors along San Antonio’s Riverwalk to a spa in Fort Worth. IVP has sold filters to Moores Opera Center, part of the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music, where Hourani has frequently served as a guest conductor of the student orchestra. There are plenty of other IVP customers in Texas as well, including nine school districts, several hospital systems, and five municipalities.

Garrett Peel, a 45-year-old Beaumont surgeon who cofounded IVP with Hourani, says the company’s product is more effective than competing systems and well worth its higher price. “Eventually,” he says, “people will realize that the price to pay for clean air is priceless.”

The main selling point for IVP’s units is their particle-zapping metal alloy. Positioned just inches behind a HEPA filter, the alloy reaches nearly 400 degrees but doesn’t significantly warm the air around it. All that heat is intended to burn the life out of viruses and other pathogens. (Technically speaking, the heat renders a virus harmless. It doesn’t actually “kill” it.)

Think of it this way: The vast majority of viral particles coming into contact with a HEPA filter—99.97 percent of them—will get trapped. But those particles can remain on the HEPA filter for a brief time before they gradually lose the ability to infect. Outside of a biological host, viruses are unprotected and degrade fairly quickly. However, IVP argues, if too much of the virus accumulates on the HEPA filter, some particles (albeit a tiny amount) can get through while they’re still active. The company says its units speed up the inactivation process with heat, making 99.8 percent of all the SARS-CoV-2 particles (the cause of COVID-19 infections) inactive. So, in the company’s telling, even if viral particles pile up on a HEPA filter and then slip past it, there’s an added layer of defense against infection.

Arum Han, an A&M professor of electrical and computer engineering who helped to develop the IVP filter, believes that because of that “catch and kill” approach, the company’s units are ideal for high-risk settings, such as hospitals and rooms with little ventilation. “This is way safer than using just a HEPA filter itself,” Han says.

Perry, an enthusiastic former Aggie cheerleader, said in a phone interview that the involvement of A&M, as well as scientists at the University of Houston, in the development of IVP’s filter, along with testing done in 2020 at the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Galveston National Laboratory, is what sold him. “I trust the science,” says Perry, who also told me in September that he is vaccinated and, at that time, did not oppose mask-wearing in some settings, including on planes. “When you look at the entities that have publicly tested and then given their approval of this device, it’s pretty impressive. I know this is a costlier device than probably anything else on the market. But it works.”

None of the independent experts whom Texas Monthly spoke with doubted that IVP’s virus-heating metal alloy does what the company claims. “A strength of IVP’s technology is that it can indeed inactivate virus rather than just physically capture virus on a filter,” says Chang-Yu Wu, a professor of environmental engineering sciences at the University of Florida. But all of the experts on bioaerosols, including Wu, questioned whether inactivating viral particles that have been caught in a HEPA filter makes the air in a room any safer than it would be otherwise. And several of them—including all of those Texas Monthly discussed the matter with—disputed IVP’s contention that active virus can accumulate on a HEPA filter and still potentially infect people.

“If it’s a HEPA filter, then nothing’s getting through,” says Mark Hernandez, a professor of civil, environmental, and architectural engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, who is among the nation’s leading experts in bioaerosols. “Certainly no virus is getting through, and what happens on the filter stays on the filter and dies on the filter in very short order. The half-life of a coronavirus on an air filter is less than ninety minutes under common indoor environmental conditions. The whole point of using a HEPA filter is to remove [pathogens]. If you remove them, you win.”

Alex Huffman, an associate professor of biochemistry at the University of Denver who specializes in bioaerosol science, says HEPA filters have long been considered the gold standard at trapping pathogens and that most additions to them he’s seen “are just bells and whistles that make a unit more expensive but don’t actually add any value.” Similarly, when Texas Monthly asked Brent Stephens, chair of the department of civil, architectural, and environmental engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, to look into IVP’s filtration units, he said the super-heating metal mesh “does seem like potentially overkill.”

William Bahnfleth, a professor of architectural engineering at Penn State and an expert in air quality, agreed with Stephens when asked about IVP. “The question I ask myself is this: A HEPA filter by design removes 99.97 percent of particles. So what does this [IVP] filter do?”

One thing IVP’s units appear to do is offer additional peace of mind to the school leaders responsible for buying them—because of the big promises IVP makes. “Our number one priority was trying to keep our school doors open and not having to shut down,” says Gina Garza, superintendent of Ricardo ISD, about fifty miles southwest of Corpus Christi. “If this investment brought a sense of security for our staff and for our parents, then it was a good investment.”

School districts across the country spent millions in local and federal tax money to retrofit their classrooms with higher-quality air filtration systems. In many cases, those districts spent much less than what IVP has charged Texas schools for its units. Chicago’s public schools, for instance, in late 2020 paid $8.5 million to buy 20,000 HEPA air filtration units made by Intellipure, which is based in Pulaski, New York. That was enough to put one in every classroom in Chicago for a price of about $425 each. Compare that with Galveston ISD, which paid about $1,265 each for 79 classroom-size units from IVP—a steep discount from the company’s $4,995 list price for those units, but still more expensive than many similarly effective HEPA filters.

Indeed, dozens of air filtration devices on the market that employ HEPA filters are regarded as highly effective (capturing the same percentage of pathogens as IVP’s filtration units), and cost significantly less than IVP’s units. To name just one: A Levoit LV-H134 Tower Pro purifier, which covers about 710 square feet, costs $350. Three LV-H134 Tower Pros would treat the air in the same size space as one of IVP’s “Venue Mobile Units,” which cost $14,999 each and have been deployed in several Texas school districts.

IVP is far from alone in selling filters to taxpayer-funded entities with the promise of better results than HEPA-only units. Virginia Beach City Public Schools spent $3,000 each last summer on 500 EnviroKlenz units that use HEPA filters to capture viral particles, plus radioactive light known as “ultraviolet C” or UVC to “kill” any particles that get caught in or are missed by the filter. (UVC has been used in hospital air filtration for years.) The public schools of Washington, D.C., also bought HEPA and UVC filters from Florida-based EnviroKlenz, and other companies, in a $24 million retrofit to their classrooms. And Philadelphia’s public schools paid about $473 each for 9,500 filtration units from Dallas-based ActivePure that skip the HEPA filter and instead promise to pull pathogens through a “honeycomb matrix” to neutralize them. Philadelphia’s purchase met with public criticism from at least one environmental engineer.

San Angelo ISD superintendent Carl Dethloff says his district considered purchasing filtration units that used only HEPA filters but decided instead to buy the more expensive IVP units—35 large and five small ones, in addition to seven units IVP donated. SAISD spent federal CARES Act money on IVP mainly because of IVP’s promise to super-heat the life out of viruses. But Dethloff’s district was also swayed by the product’s endorsement by Perry, its use by MD Anderson and other hospitals, and Garrett Peel’s in-person pitch.

Peel has a master’s degree in health science and public health policy from Johns Hopkins University and a bachelor’s in political communications from George Washington University.  His medical license was temporarily restricted in 2019 after the Texas Medical Board found he had “established a pattern of patient care that deviates significantly from the applicable standard of care” in breast surgeries. (Peel says his license suspension was the result of a meritless patient complaint, and he notes that it was reinstated.) He insists that IVP’s units do indeed go well beyond HEPA alone, but in interviews with Texas Monthly, his explanations sometimes veered into what air-quality specialists regard as hyperbolic or inaccurate statements. For instance, he said that SARS-CoV-2 particles “survive for hours on surfaces and even longer in an environment like a filter where they can replicate. With this replication, the power airstream can push even more virus out in the ventilation, making an HVAC system a potential superspreader.”

That’s not just scientifically dubious, experts say; it’s impossible. “Viruses cannot replicate without a cellular host,” says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. “Filters don’t have cells.” (When asked about Rasmussen’s statement, Peel declined to respond directly. Instead he reiterated that any air filters “without IVP technology, have the potential to actively spread the virus,” an assertion that air quality experts told Texas Monthly there’s no evidence to support.)

Some IVP buyers seem to agree with Peel—that when it comes to spaces where we, and our children, must gather, perhaps without masks, it’s worth paying significantly more for a filtration system that leaves the air maybe a tiny bit cleaner than it otherwise would be. That argument might be especially attractive for those who are spending taxpayers’ money, which, as a wit once observed, is everybody’s money and nobody’s money. Still, bioaerosol experts question whether, in a world of limited resources, the extra protection that IVP filtration units might provide is worth their much higher cost, or if IVP’s virus-zapping heater is just the latest form of hygiene theater.

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