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Why copper could help prevent future pandemic, and what it does to coronavirus

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 3/20/2020 By Peter Krouse, cleveland.com

CLEVELAND, Ohio - A recent clinical study that indicates copper is far better than other common materials at preventing the spread of infectious diseases has caught the public’s attention amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Princeton University reported in The New England Journal of Medicine this week that COVID-19 was “detectable in aerosols for up to three hours, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel.”

Those findings raise the obvious questions: Why does the coronavirus become inactive on copper much sooner than on other surfaces? Why aren’t more high-touch surfaces made of copper? And will the recent study in conjunction with the coronavirus change behaviors?

For answers, cleveland.com contacted Michael Schmidt, professor of microbiology and immunology at Medical University of South Carolina; John Spear, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines; Thomas Passek, president of the Copper Development Association; and Amy O’Shaughnessy, vice president of marketing and strategic planning at Revere Copper Products in Rome, N.Y..

Why is copper so special?

“It has to do with the fact that copper is schizophrenic,” said Schmidt, who with the help of the copper industry obtained a Department of Defense grant in 2007 to study the germ-fighting efficacy of the metal.

The metal is highly conductive and electrons are constantly moving back and forth, he said, and that “schizophrenic” behavior creates the anti-microbial action.

Using a bit of science speak, Schmidt explained that the copper dents the crown-shaped virus and then slowly releases ions that interact with oxygen and generate free radicals, or uncharged molecules that typically are highly reactive. Those free radicals create a figurative grenade that goes off and destroys the virus’ RNA.

How effective a germ killer is copper?

Schmidt said he and his researchers were able to demonstrate that copper surfaces could reduce the infection rate in hospitals by 58 percent, although distinctions were not made between bacterial or viral infections.

Spear points to a study from 2015 by the University of Southhampton in England that found copper can help prevent respiratory viruses from spreading.

“On copper, and a range of copper alloys – collectively termed ‘antimicrobial copper’— the coronavirus was rapidly inactivated (within a few minutes, for simulated fingertip contamination),” states a summary of the study by ScienceDaily. “Exposure to copper destroyed the virus completely and irreversibly, leading the researchers to conclude that antimicrobial copper surfaces could be employed in communal areas and at any mass gatherings to help reduce the spread of respiratory viruses and protection public health.”

So why hasn’t the use of copper taken off?

Spear believes cost has been the biggest factor. Copper is widely used for wiring and pipe, he said, “but to have copper everywhere would be prohibitively costly.”

Also, while copper is used in some medical machines, such as for tubing, it’s not prominent on external surfaces because it’s a soft metal that dents and when exposed to the atmosphere forms a green patina that can rub off.

So, while cooper may be good for wiping out certain microbes, it’s not necessarily a good material for working with on a daily basis, Spear said.

Could the coronavirus change opinions about copper?

The Copper Development Association, a trade group representing the industry, believes that is already happening.

Copper is already recognized for its germ-fighting qualities, and is used in high-traffic facilities, including hospitals, gyms, schools and mass transit hubs, according to the association.

For example, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta installed more than 50 drinking fountains made of “EPA-registered copper alloys” and the Los Angeles Kings NHL hockey team has copper surfaces in its training facilities.

But the use of copper has been limited in part by the cumbersome regulatory requirements the industry has had to meet to tout the antimicrobial benefits and in part because of the higher cost.

Passek said he expects the lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic will make the cost of copper less of an issue.

Said O’Shaughnessy, “We all thought this industry should have taken off 10 years ago.”

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