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Is MSC’s new “Safe Air” system marketing hype or will it make cruising safe again?

PortandTerminal.com, October 21, 2020

GENEVA, SWITZERLAND– MSC Cruises announced today that it will become the world’s first cruise line to install something called a “Safe Air” sanitation system on one of its new cruise ships.

HVAC systems on cruise ships are a hot area of discussion these days ever since the CDC flip-flopped on their guidance earlier this month and said that on second thought, COVID-19 can spread through virus lingering in the air. To its credit, the cruise industry’s Healthy Sail Panel has been out front on the issue and include controlling airborne virus transmission on their list of health recommendations:

“Recommendation 29: Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through the air is sufficiently likely that airborne exposure to the virus should be controlled for.”

Which brings us back to MSC. The company has been working hard to develop smart safe sailing health protocols to try to get passengers back onto its cruise ships without having virus outbreaks on board. The introduction of the “Safe Air” to its new vessel MSC Seashore is a forward-thinking example of their work to get passengers cruising safely again.

The goal of this article is to try and answer two questions: 1) What is the “Safe Air” system? and 2) Will it help prevent the spread of COVID-19 on cruise ships?

What is the Safe Air System?

Let’s let MSC describe it to us first.

“The ‘Safe Air’ next-generation sanitation system is based on the technology of UV-C lamps which are type C ultraviolet rays applied in combination with the ship’s air conditioning system, whereby air flow is radiated at source with a short wavelength light that hits organic particles and prevents the circulation of air pollutants such as viruses, bacteria and mould.” (MSC Safe Air announcement)

The key here is UV-C. There are a number of different types of UV light. Two of them, UV-A and UV-B will give you wrinkles, sunburn and even skin cancer, and are the reason you pack sunscreen when you go on vacation.

The third type of UV waves, UV-C, is much more dangerous to all genetic material which, in this case, is a good thing. It’s a germicide, which means it can kill up to 99.99 per cent of bacteria and viruses. When produced artificially, UV-C breaks up the genetic material of the pathogens floating in air or water and sticking to surfaces so that they can’t function or reproduce.

So the bottom line here is that MSC Cruise is “suggesting” that their new “Safe Air” system zaps the air flowing through its HVAC system with UV-C waves to kill bacteria and viruses.

Will it work?

Cruise ship
The new MSC Seashore will launch in July 2021

First, let’s put some WHEN on MSC’s announcement. IF the system works, it won’t help MSC and its passengers before July 2021 when the new MSC Seashore is launched — that’s a lifetime (and possibly a bankruptcy or two) away for the industry right now. To our understanding, there are no plans yet to try and retrofit the “Safe Air” system onto existing vessels.

In its announcement made today (Oct. 21), the marketing team at MSC Cruises is very careful to NOT promise that the Safe Air will kill airborne coronavirus. They DO make the following concrete claims about the system:

 “(The) ‘Safe Air’ (will) improve further the quality and cleanliness of the onboard air for its guests and crew.”

“The ‘Safe Air’ next-generation sanitation system is based on the technology of UV-C lamps … that hits organic particles and prevents the circulation of air pollutants such as viruses, bacteria and mould.”

That’s as far as they are willing to stick their necks out. There are no explicit statements about whether or not the “Safe Air” will kill the coronavirus on board their cruise ship.

The science on UV-C is very promising though.

“A study published in the journal Nature in 2018 raises the potential UV-C disinfection to prevent or reduce airborne viral infections. Though research needs to be done in real-world conditions, the scientists at the Columbia University Medical Center say the so-called far-UV-C spectrum could potentially lead to widespread decontamination efforts in public spaces, such as hospitals, doctors offices, schools, airports and airplanes.” (CTV News, April 6, 2020)

The article in Nature concluded that “Continuous very low dose-rate far-UVC light in indoor public locations is a promising, safe and inexpensive tool to reduce the spread of airborne-mediated microbial diseases.”

Will MSC’s new “Safe Air” system actually work to kill airborne COVID-19? The science seems promising. MSC should be commended for their innovation.

According to the company, the new ‘Safe Air’ sanitation system was developed by “Fincantieri’s (their shipbuilder) designers and technicians and the virology laboratory of the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, a leading global research institute headquartered in Trieste, Italy”.

Both of these two organizations are respected in their fields. While MSC Cruise’s cautious wording today of the new system’s capabilities is a watch-out, this may be some much needed good news for the industry.

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