In the last two years of responding to the pandemic, corporate and institutional leaders have spent millions and more in the hopes of protecting their communities. Fighting a disease that’s spread almost exclusively in indoor spaces, they’ve reconfigured HVAC systems, added air purifiers and reconfigured floor plans with the objective of lowering the risk of viral transmission.
But have they done enough? The truth is, it’s hard to say. Even those with the highest standards have spent two years wondering whether their actions have made a difference, or whether they could have done more. With so much at stake, it’s urgent to understand the risk-mitigating effects of the actions, and to learn what else ought to be done. This is crucial to meaningfully protecting their communities as well as to evaluating their investments in doing so.
I co-founded Poppy Health a year before the COVID-19 outbreak. Even before the risks reached pandemic proportions, our mission was to map, measure and optimise the landscape of indoor air to keep everyone safe. There is no shortage of solutions to improve Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), but we have spent years developing the tools to scientifically and precisely understand how to improve it.
Our services extend from rapid alerts to signal the airborne presence of specific pathogens, like SARS-CoV-2, to biosafety-imaging, which allows us to understand the real-world movement of bioaerosols in physical spaces. Across North America and beyond, they have allowed developers, property managers, architects, designers and consultants to see for the first time just how effective their biosafety and air systems truly are. They have also provided blueprints for optimising IAQ and making offices, factories, schools, airports, gyms and cultural institutions safer for everyone.
Born before the pandemic, designed to see beyond it
In 2022, COVID-19 is still the primary concern. But anyone deep in the industries still worries about bacteria and mould. Then, there is influenza. We have also all lived through annual “flu season”, during which indoor environments mercilessly spread the virus, including H1N1. None of these worries should ever have become routine, and our systems and technologies should enable us to disrupt those routines altogether.
That means investing in IAQ and understanding the impact of those investments on human and financial outcomes. Every dollar we spend helps limit the powerful disruptions to everyday life that are driving up stress, driving down productivity and costing businesses money. Before COVID-19, a Harvard University study estimated that sick days cost employers worldwide approximately USD 600 billion, annually. Infectious diseases are a major contributor to that tally. In fact, 80% of Americans average four colds and 28-40 sick days a year.
We developed tools and systems to transform our buildings into safer, healthier and more productive places. That goal was always important. The pandemic has reminded us why it is urgent.
COVID-19 has changed how people consider gathering indoors. Consciously or unconsciously, IAQ is now part of the calculus we all make when entering a building for a meeting, a meal or a movie. Sure, the comfort of our environment – influenced by light, temperature and humidity – still matters, but even for those to whom the word “biosafety” means nothing, they know that the “great indoors” is now a risk. These anxieties jeopardise every enterprise that depends on people showing up.
How MEP can do what vaccine and mask mandates cannot
Many site and facility managers are frustrated over their inability to effectively protect communities that might or might not take the necessary individual measures to protect themselves. Almost all the measures that help prevent infectious spread – including distance, testing, vaccines and masking – demand compliance from every individual who shows up. This has proven to be impractical to demand, or even to expect.
There are, however, crucial steps in mitigating infection risks – namely, the movement, filtering and purification of indoor air – that have been radically effective for every site that has used them. Thus, MEP professionals are well-positioned to implement solutions that shift the burden of safety away from individuals towards cost-effective solutions that protect entirely everyone on-site. These are the people for whom we have built tools and systems.
Urgent alerts and important analysis
Our systems revolve around the use of monitors. No bigger or more obtrusive than a smoke detector, the monitors detect microbes and pathogens in the air between people, as opposed to looking for them inside their noses. With frequent monitoring, we can provide actionable rapid intelligence “alerts”, when an infectious individual enters a monitored space. This intelligence can lead to any number of actions. We can help someone who is infectious get care, even before they themselves are aware of it, and isolate them from other community members, who can then continue their activities.
In addition to this superpower, the monitors are used across North America with unique genetic “tracers”, which we developed in 2020. By dispersing the tracers into indoor air, and measuring their uptake with the monitors, we can deliver the first high-resolution image of exactly how bioaerosols travel in every corner of an office, institution, restaurant, gym or school. Our biosafety imaging reveals how ventilation, filtration and other safety measures are working, what needs attention and where our monitors can best mitigate the risks of exposure. The data and insights we provide have been used to rebalance and optimise real systems in real buildings, all in the efforts of protecting real people around the clock.
The monitors are also being used to scan for more than 1,000 other pathogens beyond SARS-CoV-2. Some are viruses that matter in immediate terms, like the flu or bacteria, like MRSA. Others may just point to the presence of mould or pests that require attention over time. Building managers have used these much like a medical “check-up” to gauge the overall health of the building.
Our paired services have transformed the way customers and partners think about and manage the risk of infection. Across North America, customers now approach biosafety like they do fire safety: rigorous inspection to minimise the effects of a problem, and rapid response when a problem is detected.
Many governments in the Middle East have done remarkable jobs in setting out to protect their people. But anyone working in MEP knows that the role they play is likely to have greater consequences than a policy or mandate.
We have gathered the finest talent at the intersections between building engineering and biotechnology, including a deep scientific bench. Our international advisory board has some of the best scientific and technical minds in the fields of the microbiology of the built-environment, metagenomics, infectious disease and public health.
In the Middle East, we have met some of the most extraordinary MEP professionals, who are concerned not just with conventional models of efficiency but also about the key role they play in protecting communities and restoring confidence about indoor spaces.
In the breadth of their markets and the depth of their concerns, we have found extraordinary partners here, and look forward to meeting more in 2022.
Indoor spaces can be transformed from infection risks into protective environments. It starts with being able to understand how those indoor environments are performing, in revolutionary quantitative terms. It ends with the new forms of vigilance that the monitors provide. In the middle, as always, are the invisible science and art of conscientious MEP professionals.