According to reports, last month a startling discovery was made.
As it turns out, the novel coronavirus can survive for up to four days on stainless steel and glass but dies in a matter of hours if it gets in contact with copper.
And this came as a surprise to Bill Keevil, a microbiologist at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, who has been studying the effects of copper for about 20 years. Bill has been watching on as copper killed one viral bug after another. He made his first experiment with the bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s Disease and then went on to drug-immune fatal infections such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). He made research on viruses that had been sowing terror around the world like the Swine Flu and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). In these cases, copper simply destroyed the virus in a matter of minutes.
“It just blew it apart,” Bill says.
Five years ago, Bill decided to go after Coronavirus 229E, a COVID-19 sibling that is responsible for pneumonia and the regular cold.
Once more, copper took the pathogen out in no time while it stayed alive on surfaces like glass and stainless steel. In comparison, copper works as a disinfectant just by laying there.
“One of the ironies is, people [install] stainless steel because it seems clean and in a way, it is,” Bill says, stressing how common the material is in our day to day lives.
“But then the argument is how often do you clean? We don’t clean often enough.”
Bill’s research, in a way, is a revival of an ancient remedy.
For thousands of years, our ancestors knew about the disinfectant powers of copper, before they even knew what viruses and germs were.
“Copper is truly a gift from Mother Nature in that the human race has been using it for over eight millennia,” says Michael G. Schmidt, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina who studies the effects of copper in healthcare environments.
The first known use of the metal as a virus-eliminating element comes from the possibly oldest medical document in history, Smith’s Papyrus. Its writings have been found to belong to an Egyptian doctor who lived around 1700 B.C. but contains information that dates back to 3200 B.C. Egypt designated the ankh symbol – which is representative of everlasting life – to signify copper in hieroglyphs.
In China, as far back as 1600 B.C., people used copper coins as a treatment for stomach aches and heartaches as well as bladder issues.
The Phoenician civilization inserted shavings from their bronze-made swords into stab wounds to stop infections.
For thousands of years, mothers have been aware that their offspring did not get diarrhea as much when they drank from copper cups and passed their wisdom to the next generations.
“You don’t need a medical degree to diagnose diarrhea,” Michael says.
And the power of copper is long-lasting.
Bill’s team had a look at the Grand Central Terminal in New York some years ago.
“The copper is still working just like it did the day it was put in over 100 years ago,” he said. “This stuff is durable and the anti-microbial effect doesn’t go away.”
In addition, modern researchers and organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency have confirmed what our ancestors knew all along, with the EPA registering around 400 copper surfaces as antimicrobial.
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But how exactly does it work?
Heavy metals such as silver, gold, and others fall into the antibacterial category. But the specific atomic structure of copper gives it additional killing strength, according to Bill. It has a free electron in its outer orbital casing of electrons that takes part in oxidation-reduction reactions (which also makes the metal a good conductor). As a consequence, he says, it turns into a “molecular oxygen grenade.” Gold and silver are less potent as they do not possess the free electron.
In addition, copper can kill bacteria in other ways, according to Bill, who has documented the effect in publications. When a microbe finds its way onto copper, ions blast it like a rain of bullets, stopping cell respiration and piercing holes in the cell membrane or viral casing and forming free radicals that cause a faster death, especially if the surface is dry. Moreover, the ions search for and destroy the DNA and RNA contained in the virus or bacteria, stopping the mutations that create drug-immune killer bugs.
“The properties never wear off, even if it tarnishes,” Michael says.
Michael has been concentrating his efforts around the question of whether using alloys made of copper in often-touched surfaces reduces infections in hospitals.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, every day about 1 in 31 hospital patients has at least one infection, which costs as much as $50,000 per person. Michael’s study, which is funded by the Department of Defense, focused their attention on copper alloys on surfaces including tables, bedside rails, intravenous poles, and chair armrests at three hospitals in the US. The month-and-a-half-long research showed a 58% infection reduction in comparison to routine infection protocols.
The investigation was stopped when the DOD turned its attention on the Zika pandemic, so Michael teamed up with a manufacturer that created a hospital bed made of copper. A study that took two years to complete compared beds in a hospital ICU with plastic surfaces and those with copper. In almost 90% of the samples the bed rails on the plastic surfaces exceeded the accepted risk standards, while the copper bed rails exceeded the same standards on just 9%.
“We again demonstrated in spades that copper can keep the built environment clean from microorganisms,” Michael said.
Michael also co-authors an 18-month-long research led by Shannon Hins-Leasure, an environmental microbiologist at Grinnell College, who made a comparison between the bacterial abundance in empty rooms and rooms with patients in them at Grinnell Regional Medical Center’s 49-bed hospital.
And, thankfully, copper once again reduced bacterial numbers.
“If you’re using a copper alloy that’s always working,” she says, “you still need to clean the environment, but you have something in place that’s working all the time (to disinfect) as well.”
Bill and Michael have both found that installing copper to just 10% of surfaces would curb infection rates and save $1176 per day when comparing the reduced cost of treating infected patients to the cost of installing copper. But unfortunately, hospitals have been slow to react.
“I’ve been surprised how slow it has been to be taken up by hospitals,” Shannon adds. “A lot of it has to do with our healthcare system and funding to hospitals, which is very tight. When our hospital redid our emergency room, we installed copper alloys in key places. So it makes a lot of sense when you’re doing a renovation or building something that’s new. It’s more expensive if you’re just changing something that you already have.”
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— WIRED UK (@WiredUK) May 19, 2020
North Carolina and Virginia’s Sentara Hospital System made copper-infused surfaces the new normal across 13 hospitals back in 2017 for bed rails and overbed tables after a trial made in 2016 in which a Virginia Beach hospital reported a 78% decrease in drug-resistant organisms.
With the help of Israeli technology, the hospital also switched to copper-heavy beds. Bill says Poland and France have started putting copper alloys in their hospitals. Meanwhile, in Chile and Peru, which produce copper themselves, it is being implemented in public transit systems and hospitals.
“So it’s going around the world, but it still hasn’t taken off,” Bill said.
But if you’re wondering whether playing with copper in your hands will reduce the likelihood of you catching coronavirus, better stick to sanitizer and soap just to be on the safe side.
“You never know how many viruses are affiliated with the hand, so it may not completely get them all,” Michael stressed. “It will only be a guess if copper will completely protect.”
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