"Germ-Zapping Robots": How Hollywood Might Kill Coronavirus Fears on Set

Xenex Robot-Tradition Florida - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Xenex

Sources say CBS' 'Blue Bloods' has shown serious interest in the $125,000 machines, which are already used in hospitals around the globe.

With plans for safely revving up production underway in Hollywood, the industry is looking at creative ways to make sure sets are sanitary in the age of COVID-19. One newly emerging strategy might have people wondering whether the pandemic is turning Hollywood into one of the sci-fi films it churns out: "germ-zapping robots."

Yes, really. Hollywood has begun to take interest in a lab-certified disinfecting robot that uses pulses of ultraviolet (UV) light to kill SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. According to testing performed at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, one of the world's leading independent research institutes that works exclusively with infectious diseases, the robot was able to deactivate 99.99 percent of the novel coronavirus in two minutes with its LightStrike technology.

The device is made by San Antonio-based Xenex Disinfection Services, which has trademarked the name "Xenex Germ-Zapping Robot." It's just one tool the company's co-founder and chief scientific officer, Dr. Mark Stibich, is offering the entertainment industry as part of his and former filmmaker Justin Golding's newly formed venture, Production Safe Zone (PSZ), which is aimed at helping Hollywood productions get back up and running again safely. With studies suggesting that the virus can live on some surfaces for days, high-touch areas on set can pose a grave threat to the safety of cast and crew, so having effective ways to rid surfaces of the virus is critical to reopening.

The pair have approached major studios and streamers, including Netflix, Amazon and Sony, in recent weeks about the robots. "The way we like to think of it is that our pathogens, like coronavirus, have evolved — but our tools that clean the environment haven't," says Stibich, who holds a master of health science degree and a Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and is a fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. "We're still basically using buckets and mops and wipes, and what we need is a new tool in order to reduce the risks that the environment may cause an infection.”

Sources say at least one production, CBS’ long-running procedural Blue Bloods, starring Tom Selleck, has already shown serious interest, and has put one of the robots on hold to potentially use in the future, should it be approved by the industry task forces overseeing the new production protocols. CBS declined to comment, and Stibich and Golding say they aren't at liberty to speak about prospective clients.

Xenex's robots, which can be rented on a per-month basis or purchased for roughly $125,000, are already used in more than 500 health care facilities and hospitals around the world, including the Mayo Clinic, HonorHealth, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Stanford and USC. But the medical device's Hollywood arrival reflects the lengths to which the industry may be willing to go to protect workers on sets amid the pandemic. "We're talking about having to do something along the lines of what hospitals have been doing forever," says Goldberg, "procedures that never existed in the film production industry before."

Since the robots don't require any warm-up or cool-down periods, they work quickly and are able to disinfect dozens of rooms each day. They're rather simple to use, too. The procedure goes something like this: A trained individual places it in a designated area, turns it on and then exits the room for the next five minutes while the device generates bursts of high-intensity, full germicidal spectrum UVC light (more intense than sunlight.) Though a few seconds of human exposure to the light is within all of the safety thresholds, according to Stibich, there can be damage to the eyes after prolonged exposure, which is why it’s important to not be in the same room when the device is running.

"Our safety protocol is really developed, and we've seen results with reductions in the amount of infections in hospitals," says Stibich, noting that it's been used approximately 22.5 million times in health care settings. "That's why we want to bring it over to the entertainment industry as the studios open up."

The robots are able to move on their own by following a path in the room they’re in, but since that feature may pose an issue with certain labor unions, such as IATSE, Goldberg says they're prepared to work with crewmembers to be in charge of them. "We work hand in hand with the union, as we did in the hospitals, and train their people up so that we're not bringing in some automated service that reduces the workforce," he explains. IATSE says they are unable to comment on any specific proposal or procedure for return to work at this time.

In addition to the robots, the pair say are offering a host of other services to clients, everything from COVID-19 testing before and during production to temperature and pulse oximeter entry screenings to social distancing infrastructure planning. They can also provide high-temperature laundry services and security and medical personnel. The cost for their all-inclusive service is $75 per person per day, with a minimum of 30 days of production required and at least 50 production members.

There's no doubt the task of meeting the strictest safety standards the industry has ever seen is daunting for many industry leaders, which is why Stibich says he wants to offer up his expertise. "What's crazy about this situation is that everyone is trying to figure it out on their own, and that's really tricky. It's like if I went and sat in on a class about film lighting, I would have no idea what's going on," he says. "So for someone in entertainment to jump in on, say, a CDC webinar and try to figure out what's important there, I just don't think we can expect them to be able to do that.”