Weaponize Our Surfaces Against the Next Virus

In the COVID-19 era, the most mundane of activities—like going to the grocery store or gas station—can feel perilous. Every surface we touch could host a virus we can’t see but we know can be deadly. But what if that wasn’t the case? What if we could make everyday surfaces into virus killers? We can and we should.

We now know that the coronavirus, as well as other influenzas and superbugs, can live on most hard surfaces for days, and sometimes for a week or more. However, when these bugs end up on copper, and copper alloys like brass, they start dying almost immediately, and are undetectable within hours. If that sounds too good to be true, it’s not.

Copper, like certain other metals used in healthcare applications—including silver, gold, platinum, and zinc—has natural antimicrobial properties. In other words, copper doesn’t need chemicals for sterilization. It naturally sterilizes itself. It’s for precisely this reason that most pipes bringing water into homes are made with copper.

Multiple studies have shown how effective copper is at killing bugs. A study just published in the New England Journal of Medicine by researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Health found that this particular coronavirus can live on plastic and stainless-steel for two to three days, but only four hours on copper.

The potential to use copper to reduce infection rates and cut the spread of germs is immense. A 2015 Department of Defense study found that when copper alloys were put into several hospitals, they cut infection rates by 58%. Another study conducted in 2016 in a pediatric intensive care unit produced equally promising results.

Copper and its alloys should be used everywhere in hospitals—for door knobs, elevator buttons, IV stands, and bed rails. Yet, they largely aren’t.

Ramping up the use of antimicrobial surfaces won’t eliminate the need for hand washing and deep cleaning in healthcare facilities. But if these studies are any indication, the adoption of antimicrobial surfaces in hospitals and doctors’ offices could go a long way toward reducing infections and containing the spread of deadly pathogens.

We’re learning in real time the cost of trying to contain an outbreak. Before COVID-19, our healthcare system was already spending billions annually trying to manage drug-resistant bugs. The math is humbling and indisputable: We simply can’t afford to not make antimicrobial surfaces ubiquitous.

If we had surfaces that passively killed viruses in high traffic areas—think public transportation or door handles in stores—we could integrate resistance to the next bug directly into our world. Consumers too could play an essential role. Household doorknobs, doorbells, and railings could become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

As congress considers a potential infrastructure stimulus, funding for the vast deployment of antimicrobial surfaces seems like a natural fit. Now is precisely the time to start preparing our defense against the next virus. The cost of not acting is simply too high.

Matthew Kandrach is the president of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy (CASE).

See the full op-ed here.