By Daniel McGroarty, GeoPolicy Editor
Imagine a door handle that can attack the COVID-19 virus on a molecular level, destroying it within a few hours. Imagine a mask that can capture and kill COVID droplets. Imagine pillowcases and hospital gowns that destroy pathogens instead of spreading them. These ideas may sound like science fiction, the fever dreams of a public gripped by fear of an invisible attacker we are still struggling to understand. But they’re very real, based on a scientifically documented capability to kill viruses in the corona family.
And the common thread running through these examples is a familiar material: copper.
Copper’s ability to ward off disease was known millennia ago, long before modern medicine taught us precisely how it worked. That’s why copper chalices from Cyprus are found in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, and that’s why we get water from copper pipes and prepare food in copper cookware. Modern science has backed up this ancient wisdom with new data.
There’s a lot we still don’t know about COVID and its transmission, but it’s already clear that the battle begins with basic hygienic behaviors like hand-washing, shielding sneezes and social distancing. Still, if COVID lingers on surfaces for days, social distancing alone won’t stop transmission. If we could shorten the virus’s life expectancy on frequently handled items like doorknobs, light switches, and counters, we’d be one giant step closer to “flattening the curve.”
Many metals can kill germs. A 2010 study tested the effects of a range of metals against the bacteria staphylococcus and E. coli, finding that seven—cobalt, nickel, copper, zinc, zirconium, lead and molybdenum—have measurable antibacterial properties. But none compares to copper, which EPA has registered as a proven killer of superbugs, including MRSA and VRE.
A study published this month in the New England Journal of Medicine confirms copper’s COVID-killing capabilities. The study measured the persistence (in technical terms, the “stability kinetics”) of the novel coronavirus, and its closely related precursor SARS, on several common surface materials, including plastic, stainless steel, cardboard, and copper. COVID lingered longest on stainless steel and plastic—for 48 to 72 hours—and 24 hours on cardboard.
On copper, COVID was killed off within four hours.
This new study is in line with a 2013 Department of Defense report showing 58 percent fewer infections for patients treated in intensive care unit rooms outfitted with copper alloy surfaces.
Beyond its role as a surface coating, copper nanoparticles promote wound healing, and copper-mesh bandages used by battlefield medics. An Israeli company developed copper-infused T-shirts to double as wound dressings, and it’s now making hospital gowns and bedding to battle hospital-acquired infections. Massive supplies of these materials could make a huge difference in the current struggle, not only for patients stricken with COVID, but for the health-care providers and the first responders who care for them.
As a response to the ongoing crisis, it may be too much to contemplate emergency retrofitting existing medical facilities that are already stretched to the limits. But as the federal government passes near-daily bills to combat COVID, it’s time to consider requiring that any new facility built to battle the pandemic install copper anti-microbial fixtures and surfaces, and add copper nanoparticles to protective facemasks and hospital gowns. And as the U.S. economy struggles to survive COVID, priority should be given to metals produced in North America, under the rules of the new USMCA trade pact.
As someone whose professional practice focuses on critical minerals and metals and their life-changing applications that shape everything from laptops and electric vehicles to smart phones and smart bombs, I’m attuned to the next new discoveries in materials science. And in this time of COVID, it’s just as clear that materials science can change the way we fight this virus, and the ones to follow.
Hard as it is to envision, this won’t be our last pandemic. COVID, or some mutant cousin, will make a return visit this fall, next winter, or next year. Now is the time for smart moves to respond to this threat and prepare for future ones. New public spaces—and particularly the touch-points of human contact within those spaces—must become our first line of protection. Anti-microbial metals like copper are an indispensable weapon in this war.
Daniel McGroarty, principal of Washington, D.C.-based Carmot Strategic Group, has testified in the U.S. Senate and House on critical minerals issues. He served in senior positions in the White House and at the Department of Defense.