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For a Device Claiming To Fight Viruses, Jargon Is Not the Same as Science

For a Device Claiming To Fight Viruses, Jargon Is Not the Same as Science

Image: Fusion Medical Animation.

Bengaluru: ‘Shycocan’ is a device that purports to be able to “attenuate viruses” and is being sold on Amazon for Rs 24,999 apiece. The device’s makers have advertised that ‘Shycocan’ can “disable” up to 99.9% of viruses in a given volume of space, can be used off the shelf with no consumables, and can protect 1,000 sq. ft at a time. Its name is short for “Scalene Hypercharge Corona Canon”.

Many articles from June last year, including those in Times of India and Economic Times, featured the ‘Shycocan’ as a “device to kill coronavirus”, as did a video from NDTV. Apart from these, some articles had also called its abilities into question, including those in Indian Express and Deccan Herald.

Screenshot of ‘Shycocan’ product page on amazon.in, April 1, 2021.

Eureka Forbes has also advertised the “Forbes Corona Guard, powered by Shycocan” as a device that could attenuate 99.9% of coronaviruses in enclosed spaces. In November 2020, after complaints from scientists, the Consumer Complaints Council of the Advertising Standard Council of India directed Eureka Forbes to withdraw its claims. Yet the company still lists the product as available, along with its purported effectiveness against the novel coronavirus.

Calls to the Eureka Forbes customer care numbers listed on the website elicit conflicting information from employees. One call-centre executive offered to arrange a free demonstration of the ‘Corona Guard’; another said that they weren’t authorised to deal with the product and that I would have to send in a request via email. Answers to queries through email redirect consumers to the Eureka Forbes website where the product is listed.

Screenshot of ‘Shycocan’ on the Eureka Forbes website (https://www.eurekaforbes.com/forbescoronaguard), April 3, 2021.

The jargon of ‘Shycocan’

Details on how ‘Shycocan’ works seem to vary slightly across different websites. However, the most common explanations of how it works involve a lot of technical jargon about electrons, negative charges and the novel coronavirus’s spike protein.

Briefly, ‘Shycocan’ can allegedly produce a large number of charged particles through the photoelectric effect – i.e. when photons of light strike certain metals, they knock out some electrons. An everyday application of this phenomenon is to produce electricity from solar energy. But in the case of ‘Shycocan’, this well-known principle is supposed to create trillions of electrons that will float around a room and specifically target and inactivate the novel coronavirus’s spike protein.

Since the spike protein is what allows the virus to infect people by attaching to and entering human cells, inactivating this protein should render the virus harmless.

According to this device’s inventor, Rajah Vijay Kumar, who runs the Organisation de Scalene, ‘Shycocan’ operates on a regular 110/240V-50/60 Hz wall socket. Kumar initially developed it in late 2018 to reduce absenteeism in the organisation’s campus due to the flu and common cold, and the device was reportedly effective.

Since the flu virus and the novel coronavirus belong to the same family, he said, it was only natural for the team working on ‘Shycocan’ to protect themselves against COVID-19 when the pandemic hit in 2020. (The two viruses don’t belong to the same family: Orthomyxoviridae v. Coronaviridae.)

But many scientists across India have questioned the ability of ‘Shycocan’ to produce trillions of electrons under such conditions.

Umesh Kadhane, a professor and head of the physics department at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST), Thiruvananthapuram, argued that electrons can’t simply be pumped into the air to seek out viruses and inactivate them.

“In our lab, when we do experiments with electrons, we need to do them in a vacuum. One cannot simply fill the air with electrons because electrons get absorbed by the atoms and molecules in air very quickly,” he explained. “In addition, their claims that the electrons produced by their device will only kill the coronavirus is completely bogus. Electrons cannot distinguish between viruses or bacteria or any other thing.”

According to Kadhane, the maker’s ideas of how ‘Shycocan’ works “are childishly inaccurate and seem to be no more than a scam intended to cheat people.”

A 3D print of a spike protein of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in front of a 3D print of a SARS-CoV-2 virus particle. The spike protein (foreground) enables the virus to enter and infect human cells. Caption and photo: niaid/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

“There are just too many red flags in this, and even as a non-expert, just high school science will tell you that these claims are untenable, especially without data,” said Arnab Bhattacharya, a professor at the department of condensed matter physics and materials science, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. “They say they have a white paper, which is basically an advertisement at best that rambles about the phylogenetic tree of SARS-CoV-2 more than anything related to their device.”

This paper claims that ‘Shycocan’ works on the well-proven principle that electrons can inactivate infectious agents in the air. However, it jumps to this conclusion based on studies that use electrons to create negatively ionised air, which has been shown to reduce bacterial infections in hospitals. But these studies don’t support any claims that electrons inactivate viruses, only that ionised air can kill airborne bacteria – which the ‘Shycocan’ supposedly does not. Specifically, ‘Shycocan’ does not harm “good bacteria or fungi”, according to a marketer.

The white paper also concludes, based on a single paper published in June 2015, that viral particles can be inactivated by negative charges. The 2015 paper reports how negatively ionised air can inactivate the canine calicivirus in air and prevent it from infecting 100% of (4 out of 4) test subjects – in this case guinea pigs. However, the canine calicivirus isn’t a coronavirus; guinea pigs are not closely related to humans; and ‘Shycocan’ is not an air ioniser.

Overall, it’s unclear how the studies cited in the white paper provide support for the efficacy of ‘Shycocan’ in disabling the coronavirus.

It’s also unclear how ‘Shycocan’, though capable of producing so many electrons – much more than air ionisers that are currently in the market as air purifiers – apparently doesn’t produce ozone, according to the company marketing it. When oxygen in the air encounters free electrons, it becomes ozone.

The ‘Shycocan’ team also does not explain how the device only targets harmful viruses and doesn’t harm “good bacteria and fungi” (and of course humans) even though many of our cells also carry positive charges just like the coronavirus spike protein.

“Even if this device has the capacity to inactivate viral proteins, the fact still is that a subatomic particle does not have a way of distinguishing a viral protein from a human protein. Then how are people safe anywhere around this device?” Reeteka Sud, a research coordinator at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru, said.

Sud is also a member of a voluntary organisation called Indian Scientists’ Response to COVID-19, or ISRC. She added that misinformation about COVID-19 prevention or cures is making India’s fight against the pandemic even more difficult.

“There is a great degree of similarity across various news reports about Shycocan in some relatively unknown news outlets,” Vinay Kumar, a patent consultant from Bengaluru with experience in medical device technologies, said. “It appears to be a well-orchestrated job of planting stories with confusing pseudoscientific jargon to escape the scrutiny of unsuspecting journalists.”

Missing pieces

A view of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, August 2012. Photo: Reuters/Jason Reed/File Photo

‘Shycocan’ does not have the US FDA’s approval, as many outlets have reported. The FDA’s review of ‘Shycocan’ states that the device “may fall under its ‘Enforcement Policy for Sterilisers, Disinfectant Devices, and Air Purifiers During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency'” guidelines.

These guidelines essentially state that ‘Shycocan’ may be distributed in the US without having to comply with some of the FDA’s regulatory requirements. According to Alok Sharma, CEO of the Shycocan Corporation, the device falls under the sterilisers and disinfectants category (note that according to the FDA, it ‘may’ fall under this category), and is not a medical device. Therefore, it only needs laboratory testing – and not clinical trials – to establish its safety profile for use near or around humans.

The ‘Shycocan’ company has also proudly claimed to have received certification for the CE Mark with Class I designation. This only means that if a device is of Class I designation, and is not a measuring device or required to be sterile, no external authority or notified body is required to test the device and declare it suitable or safe for human use.

Many of our cell phone chargers also carry the CE Mark. All this means is that your charger will probably not give you a shock or burst into flames when you try to use it. The CE Mark itself doesn’t ensure that ‘Shycocan’ works as it should.

As of now, there appear to be no published scientific studies, experiments or publicly available data (that other scientists can use) to establish the efficacy, safety or usability of ‘Shycocan’. All of the information on the device is to be found on the company’s website, in news articles, press releases and anecdotes related by the people marketing it.

The Shycocan Corporation shared several documents with The Wire Science upon request. One is a summary listing what organisms they had tested ‘Shycocan’ on and its supposed effects. But there were no details of the methods used in these tests and no data, only conclusions. A second document explained in detail their experiments on Bacillus bacteria – only one of the several hundreds of “good bacteria” – that remained unaffected by ‘Shycocan’. As such, experts said, neither document is convincing proof of the device’s efficacy against viruses or its “perfect safety” for humans and animals.

Regarding these experiments, Sud raised a few concerns about how bacteria were exposed to the electrons emitted from ‘Shycocan’. “The ‘Shycocan’ reports do not include any tests done to ensure the said particles (electrons) did get to the intended target.” The documents also don’t explain how the experimenters ensured that ‘Shycocan’ was producing electrons as it should or that these electrons had reached the test organisms.

Upon further request, the company also provided The Wire Science with some additional documents of studies on ‘Shycocan’ conducted at IIT Guwahati and the University of Madras.

None of them had the level of detail that scientists typically need to independently assess the conclusions. For example, in this 2004 paper, scientists describe the effects of ions in the air on bacteria. The experimental methods mention the densities of ions reaching the bacteria during experiments and how the researchers calculated them. The researchers also repeated their experiments at least twice to ensure the results were reliable. But the ‘Shycocan’ company failed to mention how many times their experiments were repeated.

For another example, in papers published in 2015 and 2017 – on the effects of ionised air on viruses – scientists describe several carefully thought-out experiments to ensure that the ionisation actually affects the target viruses. They also include specific details about all the organisms (e.g. strain types) and their growth and housing conditions.

“In conclusion, while I am happy there have been attempts made to test ‘Shycocan’, there are gaping holes in the information given,” Sud said. “On top of that, the design of the study has to be so as to ensure human bias is not a factor. I don’t see that here.”

A request for comment sent to ‘Shycocan’ CEO Sharma and a public relations intermediary went unanswered on this count.

For now, news sites continue to publish articles about ‘Shycocan’, some syndicated by the Press Trust of India. For example,  recent articles like this and this, both published last month, claimed that 25,000 ‘Shycocan’ units have already been installed in schools, hospitals, auditoria and other public places. The articles also claim that the Centre for Advanced Research and Development and the Organisation De Scalene Foundation have launched ‘Shycozone’, a mobile application to locate ‘Shycocan’ devices. The app is thus apparently the first “safe zone mobile app” that purports to identify areas where the virus isn’t present.

In a video shared with The Wire Science, the Shycocan Corporation also claimed that the device is being used by companies like those of the Tatas, Tech Mahindra, Finacus and Cello. In addition, at least two restaurants in Bangalore, Jus’Trufs in Jakkur and Satkriti Satvik, have advertised their use of ‘Shycocan’, claiming that their facilities protect their customers and that customers don’t have to wear masks on their premises.

At a time when COVID-19 cases are rising in the city, and in the country, confidence in the power of scientifically proven measures like wearing masks should not become subsumed by anything else.

Anusha Krishnan is a freelance science writer and editor specialising in the biological sciences. With a PhD from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, she believes that the art of storytelling is crucial for successful science communication.

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