Could Copper's Antimicrobial Properties Help?Tue, 03/24/2020 - 13:20
Though mining products are all around us, the current COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the lack of a key mineral in our daily lives: copper.
Mexico is the world’s eighth-biggest producer of copper. As it happens, this red metal has remarkable antimicrobial properties. For example, if it were widely used in handrails at public spaces, like subway stations, the contagion capacity of microbes would be drastically reduced. As investigative journalist Shayla Love explains in a recent article: “Bacteria and viruses die on copper. When a microbe lands on a copper surface, the material releases ions, which are electrically charged particles. These blast through the outer membranes and destroy the whole cell, including the DNA or RNA inside. Because their DNA and RNA are destroyed, it also means a bacteria or virus cannot mutate and become resistant to copper or pass on genes (like for antibiotic resistance) to other microbes.”
To verify if copper’s germ-bashing ability extends to COVID-19, US researchers conducted an experiment, spraying the virus on seven materials commonly found in homes and hospitals. Antonio Regalado, in an article for MIT Technology Review, summarizes the results. “After waiting a few hours or days, scientists wiped the surfaces and checked if they could still infect cells in a petri dish. Materials the virus liked best were stainless steel and plastic, where infectious germs could still be collected after three days and might endure quite a bit longer. It liked copper least: the virus was gone after just four hours.”
All of this begs the question: Why is copper not used more extensively? John Spear, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, offered an answer to Cleveland.com. “Copper is widely used for wiring and pipe,” he said, “but to have copper everywhere would be prohibitively costly.” Nevertheless, when compared to the colossal impact that the COVID-19 health crisis is expected to have on the global economy, copper starts to look like a viable alternative.
At present, much of the world’s manufacturing sector has been disrupted, causing demand for the red metal to shrink quickly. Canada’s Globe and Mail expects a surplus this year of up to 1 million tons in what was expected to be a balanced market. Hopefully, COVID-19’s outbreak will push governments and manufacturers to realize copper’s health-boosting, money-saving antimicrobial powers, rebalancing the market in the midterm.