Disease experts rejected claims by an Arizona mega-church set to host President Donald Trump on Tuesday that its new air filtration system is capable of killing 99.9% of the new coronavirus.
Brendon Zastrow, the chief financial officer at Dream City Church, and Pastor Luke Barnett posted a video touting the CleanAir EXP filter ahead of Trump's visit.
"When you come into our auditorium, 99.9% of COVID is gone — if it was there in the first place," Zastrow said in the video obtained by TMZ.
"It was technology developed by some members of our church," Barnett added. "And it kills 99.9% of COVID within 10 minutes . . . It's ionization of the air. COVID cannot live in that environment."
However, experts warned the claim was false.
"This is absurd and will not protect you," Matthew Scotch, an epidemiologist at Arizona State University, told The Daily Beast.
"The thing with rallies, for example, is that people are really close to each other. So even if they have a filtration system, if this person coughs on this person, that person is clearly going to get sick," Dr. Murtaza Akhter, an emergency physician at the University of Arizona, told local news outlet AZFamily. "There's no way for that particle or whatever you call it to be filtered."
CleanAir EXP claimed on its website as recently as Monday night that its filter "eliminates 99.9% of coronavirus in the air in less than 10 minutes."
There are numerous types of coronaviruses. The website also claimed the system was tested on an "active coronavirus 229E test surrogate."
The Daily Beast noted that "coronavirus 229E causes common-cold symptoms but is much less deadly than SARS-CoV-2."
After the outlet inquired about the claim, company president Jerry McGuire told The Daily Beast that its website had been updated to say the system can "safely eliminate 99.9% of viruses and bacteria" rather than 99.9% of the coronavirus.
"The new statement also claimed that the company has tested its filter on cystovirus phi6 as a second test surrogate for the novel coronavirus. Cystovirus phi6 is a popular pathogen for laboratory use," the outlet reported. "But even if the CleanAir EXP filter does remove some pathogens from the air, the process by which it does so can still leave people exposed to potential infection."
Scientists said the claims were false.
"This is not 'zapping' the virus and does not mean the virus has been rendered non-infectious," Herek Clack, an environmental engineer at the University of Michigan, told the outlet. "Perhaps the most damning critique is that the 99.9% removal in 10 minutes is almost certainly a test where the device is placed in a room, the room is filled with viral aerosols and once the device is turned on, it 'drains' the air of the aerosols. That scenario doesn't reflect what happens if people are present."
The technology is not able to counteract the spread of the coronavirus, he added.
"If one or more people are present, and one or more of them is shedding the virus, this technology isn't strong enough to protect people in their immediate vicinity, and the amount of virus they're shedding replaces the virus being 'drained' — sort of like draining a tub with the faucet still flowing," he said. "The result will be a slower net removal of viruses from the air than 10 minutes, or no net removal or in the extreme case, a net increase in viral aerosols."
A 2015 study by researchers at the University of Minnesota concluded that the effectiveness of air filters on viruses varies greatly.
"Distance to the source of ions, type of pathogen and particle size influenced the removal efficiency," the authors said.
CleanAir EXP told Salon that the church made statements about its product that are misleading and not in line with product use.
"We understand there is recent confusion around the claims made by one of our customers around our laboratory testing. We're at the forefront of air and surface purification testing and technology – we tested with a third-party Certified Biosafety Laboratory on the best coronavirus surrogates available (Coronavirus 229E and Cystovirus Phi6) and found our patented technology leads to a 99.9% elimination of airborne coronavirus surrogates. We do not, however, eliminate COVID-19 at this time," CleanAir EXP CEO Tim Bender said in a statement. "Our coronavirus surrogate testing results are significant for the future of clean air. We welcome the opportunity to collaborate with the CDC for additional laboratory testing and support the CDC's guidelines on hygiene habits to prevent the spread of COVID-19."
Akhter raised ethical questions about the church's leadership, calling their claims "irresponsible."
"And to say something to your congregation . . . like, 'You're going to be completely safe when people are dying?'" Akhter questioned. "I mean, I'm on shift right now. I just stepped away for a minute. I literally see people coming in sick people who end up dying."
Arizona has seen COVID-19 cases explode since the state reopened. Maricopa County, where Trump's speech is scheduled to take place, is one of the top-10 hardest-hit areas in the U.S., according to data from John's Hopkins University.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that the virus can spread very quickly in church settings.
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat, warned that Trump's church rally is "not sanctioned or permitted by the City of Phoenix, as the city does not permit political events."
"Furthermore, it does not abide by current CDC guidelines during COVID-19," she said in a statement, adding she does not believe that "an event of this magnitude can be held safely, particularly as Arizona sees rising COVID cases."
Gallego noted that the church had promised to screen attendees for fevers and distribute masks, urging Trump to wear one himself.
"We've seen tremendous compliance with the mask ordinance that went into effect this weekend. Everyone attending tomorrow's event, particularly any elected official, should set an example to residents by wearing a mask," she said. "This includes the president."