An Arizona mega-church where President Donald Trump is set to hold a rally on Tuesday claimed it possesses technology to clear the air of the novel coronavirus.
The church is wrong, multiple scientists told The Daily Beast. The air filters that Dream City Church said it installed in its 3,000-seat Phoenix-area auditorium can’t protect churchgoers—or the president—from SARS-CoV-2.
“When you come into our auditorium, 99.9 percent of COVID is gone—if it was there in the first place,” Brendon Zastrow, the church’s chief operating officer, claimed in a video that TMZ obtained.
Luke Barnett, Dream City Church’s pastor, said in the same video that the mega-church has installed CleanAir EXP filter units. “It was technology developed by some members of our church,” Barnett said. “And it kills 99.9 percent of COVID within 10 minutes.”
“This is absurd and will not protect you,” Matthew Scotch, an Arizona State University epidemiologist, told The Daily Beast. Dream City Church didn’t respond to an email requesting comment.
The CleanAir EXP system, built by a Phoenix-based company of the same name, is a combination filter unit and sensor that works with a building’s existing air-conditioning. Clean Air EXP claims on its website that its product can “clean indoor air of allergens, pathogens, odors, smoke, mold, ozone and harmful chemicals.”
A graphic that appeared on the Clean Air EXP website as late as Monday night claimed the filter “eliminates 99.9 percent of coronavirus in the air in less than 10 minutes.”
There are many types of the coronavirus besides SARS-CoV-2. In the fine print of the graphic, CleanAir EXP claimed it tested its system on an “active coronavirus 229E test surrogate.” Coronavirus 229E causes common-cold symptoms but is much less deadly than SARS-CoV-2.
After The Daily Beast left a message with CleanAir EXP on Monday, the company’s president, Jerry McGuire, texted back a link to a statement. That statement corrected the earlier graphic. Instead of claiming the CleanAir EXP filter eliminates 99.9 percent of the coronavirus, the statement claims the system can “safely eliminate 99.9 percent of viruses and bacteria.”
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.
On Tuesday, Tim Bender, CEO of CleanAir EXP, added in a statement, “We understand there is recent confusion around the claims made by one of our customers around our laboratory testing.... 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."
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. “It’s ionization of the air,” Barnett said in his video. “COVID cannot live in that environment.”
That’s not true, scientists said. The CleanAir EXP filter uses ionization to bind up particles and make them easier to pull out of the air. “This is not ‘zapping’ the virus and does not mean the virus has been rendered non-infectious,” Herek Clack, a University of Michigan environmental engineering professor, told The Daily Beast.
“Perhaps the most damning critique is that the 99.9 percent 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,” Clack added. “That scenario doesn't reflect what happens if people are present.”
“Increasing ventilation and filtering air can help reduce the airborne spread of SARS-CoV-2,” Jeffrey Klausner, a professor of medicine and public health at UCLA, told The Daily Beast. “Most of the spread of infection, however, is not airborne but through close contact and respiratory droplets. Filtering the air will not help reduce the spread of respiratory droplets.”
“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,” Clack explained. “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 backs up Clack and Klausner’s skepticism. That study found that the effectiveness of an air filter, even one specifically designed to target viruses, can vary widely. “Distance to the source of ions, type of pathogen, and particle size influenced the removal efficiency.”
Dream City Church’s false claim about its air-filtering capability comes just hours before Trump is due to speak at the house of worship. Trump has made a show of not wearing a mask in public, despite his advanced age and a spike in infections among his campaign staff.
In late May, Trump called on churches to hold services even in states with strict social-distancing rules. “Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but have left out churches and other houses of worship,” Trump told reporters. “It’s not right... In America we need more prayer, not less.” Days later, churches across the country reopened, many of them in defiance of local regulations.
“You can know when you come here you’ll be safe and protected,” Zastrow said in his video. In fact, churches with their crowded auditoriums, frequent touching and boisterous singing are a major vector for the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to a May study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC analysis details how a pastor at one Arkansas church and his wife contracted the virus and may have unwittingly helped spread it to 26 other people. They in turn infected another 33 people. Four of that group of 61 people ultimately died of COVID.
Phoenix is in Maricopa County, a major COVID hotspot, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker. The county of 4.5 million had 30,136 confirmed infections as of Monday, making it the ninth worst-hit county in the United States by number of infections.