Teck tests copper's antiviral powers
Takes red metal's germ-fighting prowess to public transport Metal Tech News – Nov. 25, 2020
Last updated 12/1/2020 at 6:55pm
In recent years, Teck Resources Ltd. has been working with healthcare officials around the world to bring copper to the frontlines in the urgent fight against bacteria and viruses harmful to the human body.
Now Teck, one of the world's top copper producers, has joined the battle underway to curb the spread of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic by moving outside the healthcare field with a new pilot project in Vancouver that is using the red metal's formidable antimicrobial properties to kill the coronavirus in public spaces.
The mining company is partnering with local, national, and international groups to test antimicrobial copper coatings on high-touch transit surfaces on buses and SkyTrain in Vancouver.
Copper alloy surfaces are naturally antimicrobial with self-sanitizing properties, and research shows that these surfaces eliminate up to 99.9% of harmful bacteria and viruses.
The project, announced Nov. 10, is the first of its kind on a transit system in North America and the latest in Teck's ongoing efforts to promote the use of antimicrobial copper surfaces in health care and public spaces through its Copper & Health Program.
The pilot project, fully funded by Teck, will run for an initial phase of four weeks with various copper surfaces installed on two buses on high-ridership routes and two SkyTrain cars. The surfaces will be tested twice a week during the project.
The partners also plan to test an organosilane surface preservative that has the potential to control and prevent the growth of microorganisms on treated surfaces. Organosilane is a silicone-based antimicrobial containing at least one carbon-to-silicon bond.
"We are proud to be working with all the partners on this important pilot project to expand the use of antimicrobial copper in high-traffic public areas and prevent infections," Teck President and CEO Don Lindsay said in a statement.
"Through the Copper & Health program, Teck has been partnering with healthcare professionals, academia and others for years to help make communities safer. This pilot builds on those efforts at a critical time as the world works to prevent the spread of COVID-19," he added.
"This project builds on preceding research and will increase our understanding of the effectiveness of copper in killing organisms on frequently-touched surfaces. Positive findings will then be used to study the impact of copper on bacteria and viruses such as COVID-19 and norovirus," said Dr. Marthe Charles, medical microbiologist at Vancouver Coastal Health, one of the study partners.
"This holds future infection control benefits not only for the public in their travels, but (also) for healthcare workers and patients who navigate their medical journey at Vancouver Coastal Health and beyond," she added.
Long known for its germ-killing powers, copper was a well-regarded remedy to ancient healers in Egypt and China and even as a folk remedy to mothers who noticed that their children had fewer bouts of diarrhea when they drank water from copper cups, according to historians.
Heavy metals, including gold and silver, are antibacterial, but researchers say copper's specific atomic makeup gives it extra killing capabilities. Copper has a free electron in its outer orbital shell of electrons that easily takes part in oxidation-reduction reactions (which also makes the metal a good conductor). Scientists describe the free electron as a "molecular oxygen grenade" in chemical reactions. Silver and gold do not have this free electron, so they are less reactive.
Copper kills in other ways, as well, according to recent research. When a microbe lands on copper, ions blast the pathogen like an onslaught of missiles, preventing cell respiration and punching holes in the cell membrane or viral coating and creating free radicals that accelerate the kill, especially on dry surfaces. Most importantly, the ions seek and destroy the DNA and RNA inside a bacteria or virus, preventing the mutations that create drug-resistant superbugs. The properties never wear off, even if copper tarnishes, researchers say.
When installed on high-touch surfaces, copper can eliminate up to 99.9% of harmful bacteria and viruses and is proven to continuously kill bacteria that cause infection.
Copper is also gaining recognition for its unique antimicrobial properties, and has acquired the nickname, "Dr. Copper." It also is the only solid metal touch surface registered as a public health product by Health Canada and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Recent research, including studies supported by Teck, has investigated whether using copper alloys in often-touched surfaces reduces hospital infections. On any given day, about one in 31 hospital patients has at least one healthcare-acquired infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control, costing as much as $50,000 per patient. One recent study, funded by the U. S. Department of Defense, looked at copper alloys on surfaces including bedside rails, tray tables, intravenous poles, and chair armrests at three hospitals around the country.
The 43-month investigation revealed a 58 percent infection reduction compared to routine infection protocols.
Antimicrobial copper, moreover, requires no new processes, staff training or special maintenance. While infrastructure and equipment can be cleaned and sanitized daily, that still leaves the rest of the day for bacteria to grow, and for people to touch surfaces and spread germs.
To raise awareness, Teck hired a microbiologist in November 2018 to swab commonly touched surfaces throughout its head office in Vancouver and found a wide range of bacterial burden on various surfaces. The company installed copper-infused hardware in all common areas and on bathroom door handles, office reception desks and courier counters. A year later, these surfaces were re-swabbed and showed an 80% to 90% reduction in bacteria.
To date, antimicrobial copper has been installed in more than 300 healthcare facilities in 26 countries in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. However, Canada and other countries are behind in adding this germ-killing tool to their arsenal.
Fighting healthcare-acquired infections
Teck has partnered with local hospitals throughout Canada and Chile to support installation of copper-infused surfaces and equipment in emergency rooms, ICUs, medical and surgical centers and other high-infection risk areas to make hospitals safer for patients, employees and visitors.
Each investment includes a full review and assessment of the project to further research on the impact and benefits of copper in reducing healthcare associated infections.
Partners include Vancouver General Hospital, Lions Gate Hospital and Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital in British Columbia, as well as Iquique Hospital in Chile. They are also engaging with other hospitals to explore potential partnerships.
While there can be a higher up-front cost to install copper surfaces, the payoff can be extraordinary: An investigation by the York Health Economics Consortium in the United Kingdom found that the cost to install antimicrobial copper components in hospitals would be recouped in less than two months due to a resulting decrease in patient infections and reduced length of stay.
While growing evidence around the world supports the use of copper surfaces in healthcare, Teck said it learned that gaps in existing research were barriers to adoption in Canada. Hospital administrators were hesitant to make a capital investment when it was unknown if these products would be effective over the long-term.
So, the mining company joined its healthcare partners in supporting a three-year study in four hospitals across Canada.
The study, published in February in the scientific journal, Biointerphases, found that three copper products exhibited significant (albeit varied) bacterial reduction compared to stainless steel, and remained effective over time. Teck said it shared the findings widely with healthcare decision makers to encourage the continued adoption of copper and revised cleaning practices for existing products.
In March, the Canadian Standards Association published the first national standard in Canada related to the cleaning and disinfection of healthcare facilities. The standard will improve healthcare cleaning procedures and encourage innovative approaches that are being increasingly adopted around the world. It includes the first formal recommendation in Canada to introduce copper surfaces as a means to reduce the spread of infection in hospitals.
Teck's funding supported the establishment of a technical committee of 25 Canadian healthcare experts, extensive stakeholder engagement and a national public review process to support publication of the standard.
Teck said copper's unique antimicrobial properties make it ideally suited to support the fight against COVID-19 with installation in high-touch, high-traffic locations, such as on transit, in airports and at gateways to public spaces.
"Copper infrastructure can help reduce the spread of infection and keep our communities moving safely," the company added.
Teck is also supporting a study currently underway at George Washington University that will directly test copper's effects on the novel coronavirus, including varying copper alloys, time periods and conditions. The study is designed to build on a previous National Institutes of Health study that showed SARS-CoV-2 was completely destroyed within four hours on copper surfaces, compared to 24 hours on cardboard and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel. Results of this Teck-supported study are expected in late 2020.
Due to the global pandemic, the importance of reducing the spread of infection outside of healthcare has gained widespread recognition. Teck's pilot project with Translink aims to test three copper alloys on the high-volume trains and buses, the first of its kind in North America.
The study will test bacterial reduction, durability and maintenance costs, as well as rider comfort and trust. If successful, the results of the pilot could have wide-reaching impact on the transit industry and other industries that rely on shared public spaces. The study results are expected to be available in February 2021.