A maskless Rick Perry stood at a podium inside the state capitol last summer, confidently proclaiming that the air in the wood-trimmed room was safe even as the coronavirus’s delta variant was surging through Texas. Behind the former governor was the official state seal flanked by two white-plastic-encased, oval-shaped machines with glowing green LED strips on top that made them look like high-tech kitchen trash cans. Those machines, a pair of souped-up air filtration units, were the reason Perry had summoned reporters as he made a rare appearance at the Capitol following his departure from state office more than six years earlier. “This,” he declared, “is potentially one of the most important press conferences that I ever was engaged with in my life.”
What Perry didn’t say—at least not until a reporter in the room pressed him—was that he has a financial interest in promoting the filters. He’s a salesman for the company that makes them, Houston-based Integrated Viral Protection, and the event soon began to feel less like the historic announcement Perry had promised and more like an infomercial on late-night television.
Nearly a dozen speakers—scientists, educators, business leaders, and one IVP executive—touted what the company calls its Biodefense Indoor Air Protection System as a breakthrough in the fight against COVID-19. They lauded the proprietary filtration process of the unit, which includes not only a commonplace high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter but also a superheated metal alloy that promises to work like a bug zapper on viral particles, catching and “killing” a scientifically precise-sounding “99.999 percent” of them.
“I can honestly say I can’t imagine starting school last week without these machines in our buildings,” said Taylor Williams, superintendent of the Slidell Independent School District, adding that the units had given teachers and parents confidence that the air would be safe in the schools of the rural Wise County district, about an hour north of Fort Worth. Perry echoed that sentiment later, declaring in a salesman’s staccato, “With this Integrated Viral Protection device, you can literally and soundly, with science as your guide, say that you are in the safest place that you can be. We’re in the safest place in the Capitol at this particular moment because we’re in this room with this device.”
The list price for that safety: $3,995 for each of the small units behind Perry at the Capitol and $13,995 for larger, water heater–size models to filter the air in large gathering spaces such as auditoriums, cafeterias, and gymnasiums. (IVP executives said that corporate buyers actually pay $3,750 for the small units and $9,999 for the larger ones, while schools get much deeper discounts, as low as at cost.)
Perry suggested that schools across the state should purchase IVP’s units by tapping billions of dollars made available through the CARES Act of 2020, a $2.2 trillion federal pandemic-relief bill. Many Texas schools appear to have done just that since Perry gave his blessing to the filters, which have also been praised by the Texas Hospital Association and the Texas Restaurant Association.
It’s hard to argue against investing in devices that can help Texans breathe more safely, especially considering the potential for the coronavirus to continue to spawn variants like the ultra-infectious omicron. Still, it’s worth comparing IVP’s products to those of competitors that are considered highly effective and far less expensive. Some air-quality experts argue that the price IVP is fetching from taxpayers is thousands-per-unit too high.
IVP was launched in March 2020 by 78-year-old Monzer Hourani, the founder and CEO of Houston-based Medistar, one of the leading developers of medical real estate in Texas. Trained not as an epidemiologist but rather as a structural engineer, Hourani conceived of the idea for a virus-zapping heated-metal alloy, which is the heart of IVP’s technology. The company said it has racked up $5 million in sales. Hourani has called his air filtration units “a gift from God” that “make it safer for people to be together again.”
Among the real estate projects that Medistar has developed are St. Luke’s Health hospital in Sugar Land, as well as PAM Rehabilitation hospitals in Round Rock and Corpus Christi. At Houston’s Texas Medical Center, Medistar is building a new campus for Texas A&M, and the company developed the InterContinental Houston hotel, with Hourani heading the ownership group.
IVP cites plenty of Texas institutions using its filters, including at least eight school districts, five municipalities, the Houston Methodist hospital system, St. Joseph Medical Center in Houston, and dozens of businesses, including restaurants and a tattoo parlor, in San Antonio. IVP has also donated its devices—a retail value of $3 million worth, according to Hourani—including to Moores Opera Center, part of the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music, where Hourani has frequently served as a guest conductor of the student orchestra.
Dr. Garrett Peel, the 45-year-old Houston surgeon who cofounded IVP with Hourani, argued the company’s technology is more effective than that of competing systems and well worth its higher cost. “Eventually,” he said, “people will realize that the price to pay for clean air is priceless.” The main selling point for IVP’s units is their particle-zapping metal alloy, which is integrated into a HEPA filter and reaches nearly 400 degrees but doesn’t significantly warm the air around it. All that heat is intended to burn the life out of viruses and other pathogens. (Technically speaking, independent experts say, the heat renders a virus harmless. It doesn’t actually “kill” it.)
Think of it this way: the vast majority of viral particles coming into contact with any HEPA filter—at least 99.97 percent of them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—will get trapped. But those particles can remain on the filter for a brief time before they gradually lose the ability to infect. Outside of a biological host, viruses are unprotected and degrade fairly quickly. However, Peel argues, if too much of the virus accumulates on the HEPA filter, some particles (albeit a tiny number) can get through while they’re still active. IVP’s units speed up the inactivation process with heat, making 99.8 percent of SARS-CoV-2 particles (the cause of COVID-19 infections) inactive, according to testing done in 2020 at the University of Houston and the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Galveston National Laboratory.
So, in Peel’s telling, even if viruses pile up on a HEPA filter and then slip past it, there’s an added layer of defense against infection. Arum Han, a Texas A&M University professor of electrical and computer engineering who helped test the IVP filter, believes that because of that “catch-and-kill” approach, the company’s units are ideal for high-risk settings such as hospitals and rooms with little ventilation. “This is way safer than using just a HEPA filter itself,” Han said.
Perry, an enthusiastic former Aggie yell leader, said in a phone interview that the involvement of A&M, as well as scientists at U of H, in the development of IVP’s filter is what sold him. “I trust the science,” he said. Perry also told me last September that he was vaccinated and did not oppose mask-wearing in settings where it’s required, including on planes. “When you look at the entities that have publicly tested and then given their approval of this device, it’s pretty impressive. I know this is a costlier device than probably anything else on the market. It works.” (Perry said he’s on the board and owns “a percentage of the company.” Hourani clarified that Perry will join the board when it is formed and that he is paid a commission for sales but holds no equity.)
None of the independent experts Texas Monthly spoke with doubted that IVP’s virus-heating metal alloy does what the company claims. “A strength of IVP’s technology is that it can indeed inactivate virus rather than just physically capture virus on a filter,” said Chang-Yu Wu, a professor of environmental engineering sciences at the University of Florida. But all of the experts on bioaerosols that I consulted, including Wu, questioned whether inactivating viral particles that have been caught in a HEPA filter makes the air in a room any safer. And all of the experts I questioned on this issue disputed Peel’s contention that active virus can accumulate on a HEPA filter and still potentially infect people.
“If it’s a HEPA filter, then what’s getting through is negligible,” said Mark Hernandez, a professor of civil, environmental, and architectural engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, who is among the nation’s leading experts in bioaerosols. “Certainly no virus is getting through, and what happens on the filter stays on the filter and dies on the filter in very short order. The half-life of a coronavirus on an air filter is less than ninety minutes under common indoor environmental conditions. The whole point of using a HEPA filter is to remove pathogens. If you remove them, you win.”
Alex Huffman, an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Denver who specializes in bioaerosol science, said HEPA filters have long been considered the gold standard and that most additions to them he’s seen “are just bells and whistles that make a unit more expensive but don’t actually add any value.” Similarly, when Texas Monthly asked Brent Stephens, chair of the department of civil, architectural, and environmental engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, to look into IVP’s filtration units, he said the super-heating metal mesh “does seem like potentially overkill.”
William Bahnfleth, a professor of architectural engineering at Penn State University and an expert in air quality, concurred with Stephens. “The question I ask myself is this: A HEPA filter by design removes 99.97 percent of particles. So, what does this [IVP] filter do?”
One thing IVP’s units appear to do is offer additional peace of mind to school leaders responsible for buying them—because of the big promises IVP makes. “Our number one priority was trying to keep our school doors open and not having to shut down,” said Gina Garza, superintendent of Ricardo ISD, about fifty miles southwest of Corpus Christi. “If this investment brought a sense of security for our staff and for our parents, then it was a good investment.”
School districts across the country have spent millions in federal tax money to retrofit their classrooms with higher-quality air filtration systems. In many cases, those districts paid much less than what IVP has charged Texas schools for its units. Chicago’s public schools, for instance, paid $8.5 million in late 2020 to buy more than 20,000 HEPA-quality air filtration units made by Intellipure, which is based in Pulaski, New York. That was enough to put one in every classroom in Chicago for a price of about $425 each. Compare that with Galveston ISD, which paid IVP roughly $862 each for 116 units, both large and classroom-size—a steep discount from the company’s list prices, but still more expensive than many similarly effective HEPA filters.
Indeed, dozens of air filtration devices on the market that employ HEPA filters are regarded as highly effective (capturing the same percentage of particles as IVP’s filtration units claim to, according to marketing materials from the manufacturers) and cost significantly less than IVP’s units. To name just one: a Levoit LV-H134 Tower Pro purifier, which covers about 710 square feet, is listed at $350. Two LV-H134 Tower Pros would treat the air in the same size space as one of IVP’s Venue Mobile Units, which carry a list price of $13,995 each and have been deployed in several Texas school districts.
IVP is far from alone in selling filters to taxpayer-funded entities with the promise of better results than HEPA-only units. Virginia Beach City Public Schools spent $3,000 each last summer on 500 EnviroKlenz units that use HEPA filters to capture viral particles, plus light known as ultraviolet C, or UVC, to “kill” any particles that get caught in or are missed by the filter. (UVC has been used in hospital air filtration for years.) The public schools of Washington, D.C., also bought HEPA and UVC filters from Florida-based EnviroKlenz as part of a $24 million retrofit to their classrooms. And Philadelphia’s public schools paid about $473 each for 9,500 air purifiers from Dallas-based ActivePure that skip the HEPA filter and instead promise to pull air through a “honeycomb matrix,” creating “oxidizers” that then actively “reduce DNA and RNA viruses, including SARS-CoV-2.”
Philadelphia’s purchase met with public criticism from at least one indoor air-quality specialist. An ActivePure spokesperson said the company’s devices are in use in several Texas schools as well, including the private Lamplighter School, in Dallas.
San Angelo ISD superintendent Carl Dethloff said his district considered purchasing filtration units that used only HEPA filters but decided instead to buy the more expensive IVP units—35 large and 5 small ones, supplemented by 7 units IVP donated. SAISD spent federal CARES Act money on IVP filters mainly because of the company’s promise to superheat the life out of viruses. But Dethloff’s district was also swayed by Perry’s endorsement of the product, Garrett Peel’s in-person pitch, and seeing hospitals such as MD Anderson Cancer Center on a list of IVP’s customers. (Peel told me MD Anderson conducted a pilot test of the filters, but Hourani later explained that an agreed-upon trial never occurred. An MD Anderson spokesperson said the hospital did not authorize the use of its name in IVP’s marketing materials.)
Peel, who resigned from IVP in February, has a master’s degree in health science and public health policy from Johns Hopkins University and a bachelor’s in political communications from George Washington University. His medical license was temporarily restricted in 2019 after the Texas Medical Board found that, in the treatment of two patients, he had “established a pattern of patient care that deviates significantly from the applicable standard of care” in breast surgeries. (Peel says the suspension of his license, which has been reinstated, was the result of a meritless patient complaint.) He insists that IVP’s units are significantly more effective than those that use HEPA filters alone. But in interviews with Texas Monthly, his explanations sometimes veered into what air-quality specialists regard as hyperbolic or inaccurate statements. For instance, he said that SARS-CoV-2 particles “survive for hours on surfaces and even longer in an environment like a filter where they can replicate. With this replication, the power airstream can push even more virus out in the ventilation, making an HVAC system a potential super-spreader.”
That’s not just scientifically dubious, experts say; it’s impossible. “Viruses cannot replicate without a cellular host,” says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. “Filters don’t have cells.” (When asked about Rasmussen’s statement, Peel did not respond directly. He later asked to amend his statement to omit his claims about virus replication. But he doubled down on his assertion that any air filters “without IVP technology have the potential to actively spread the virus,” an argument for which bioaerosols experts Hernandez and Huffman told me there’s no supporting evidence.)
Some IVP buyers seem to agree with Peel—that when it comes to spaces where we and our children must gather, perhaps without masks, it’s worth paying significantly more for a filtration system that might leave the air maybe a tiny bit cleaner than it otherwise would be. That argument might be especially attractive to those who are spending federal taxpayers’ money, which, as a wit once observed, is everybody’s money and nobody’s money. Still, bioaerosols experts question whether, in a world of limited resources, the extra protection that IVP filtration units might provide is worth their much higher cost, or if IVP’s virus-zapping heater is just another form of hygiene theater.
Tara Haelle is an independent science and health journalist based in Dallas. She’s the author of The Informed Patient and Vaccination Investigation: The History and Science of Vaccines.
This article appeared in the May 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The $14,000 ‘COVID Killer.’” Subscribe today.
This story has been edited since we first published it, to clarify and add context to issues related to the pricing of the IVP devices, to Rick Perry’s and Garrett Peel’s roles with the company, and to the temporary restriction of Peel’s medical license. Factual errors have also been corrected, including Peel’s city of residence, the list prices for IVP’s air filtration units, the misidentification of several institutions as either Medistar clients or IVP customers, the mischaracterization of “ultraviolet C” light as radioactive, the description of the mechanics of the ActivePure air filter, and the placement of the metal alloy within the IVP device.