The COVID-19 outbreak has made millions more aware of the dangers lurking at the tip of our fingers. Will copper benefit from this newfound appreciation with increased usage in hospitals and other settings?
The devastating and overwhelming effect on everyday life as a result of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus across the globe cannot be understated. Nothing in recent history – terrorism, environmental issues, global recession – has had the all-encompassing impact of the unseen virus.
In the United States, which didn’t see its first death until February, the virus and resulting shutdown turned the economy on its head nearly immediately. Ten-plus years of economic growth were wiped out in the amount of time it took to say, “shelter in place.”
Even now, with economic activity beginning to resume through many states “opening their economies,” the contraction will likely continue. Metals producers, suppliers and end users are not being spared damage from the fallout, even with their distinction as essential businesses.
But as we fully emerge from the throes of the pandemic, one segment of the metals supply chain may be better poised than most to see an increase in business activity – the copper world.
In the early days of the virus’ spread, researchers from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and several prominent universities released a study on the viability of the SARS-Co-V-1 and SARS-Co-V-2 viruses in five separate environmental conditions: aerosol, plastic, stainless steel, copper and cardboard.
The tests run by these researchers showed the novel coronavirus could remain viable on stainless steel and plastic for up to 72 hours, and for cardboard up to a full day. But for copper, the COVID-19 virus remained viable only four hours.
This early study of virus viability is interesting, as it follows on the heels of the already-established attribute of copper to kill bacteria, an entirely different substance, but one that is also responsible for health problems around the world.
Now, leading copper executives will take great pains to point out the new study is merely one test, not the replicated, much-studied subject that allowed copper to be EPA-registered for its antimicrobial properties (See Sidebar). However, the findings that back up copper’s known attributes for killing bacteria with similar effectiveness against viruses could be the push the material needs to truly become ubiquitous in a world now intimately aware of the dangers inherent in touch surfaces.
The recent studies came as no surprise to one leading trade group for red metals, the Copper Development Association. CDA is the market development, engineering and information services arm of the copper industry.
Andrew Kireta Jr., vice president of market development of the McLean, Va.-based CDA, said the study’s findings were expected. While the organization has spent the last decade promoting the material’s antimicrobial properties, researchers understood that alloys containing at least 60 percent copper, which includes brasses, bronzes, copper nickels and nickel silvers, have been proven to be effective across a wide variety of pathogens, such as viruses, fungi and spores, including a previous coronavirus. However, unlike the antimicrobial aspect, this attribute hasn’t been moved for EPA registration.
The registration process copper underwent to be able to market itself as antimicrobial was arduous, culminating with the 2008 determination by the Environmental Protection Agency, the first of its kind. Capitalizing on that attribute has been just as difficult, the industry has learned.
“Success has been pretty spotty,” Kireta says. “Some areas, like fitness equipment, have shown growth with sports teams at the collegiate and professional levels adopting the use of antimicrobial copper handles on weights and equipment to protect against infections in locker rooms like MRSA. There has also been success in some of the consumer products areas, like mobile phone cases.”
But the primary targeted market, hospitals and other health care facilities, has been very slow to make the shift to the product, much to the surprise of some in the industry.
The association, and the primary producers of the material, expected hospitals to jump at the opportunity to install copper products on frequently touched surfaces, such as door handles, bed rails, and IV poles, among others. The industry has clinical studies proving the material’s effectiveness in reducing the number of harmful pathogens in patient rooms, with or without cleanings, thereby reducing healthcare-acquired infections, patient in-hospital stays and treatment costs.
“With a return on the initial investment in copper surfaces of two to four months, adoption seemed like a no-brainer. In hindsight, we were offering a solution to a problem that the health care system wasn’t ready to admit they had and wasn’t a high enough priority to cut through their long, onerous decision-making processes,” Kireta says.
Franklin Bronze Precision Components admits the adoption of copper on touch surfaces has been slower than the industry would like. “There has not been a large acceptance of or demand for the antimicrobial properties. Many have not been so accepting to use copper/bronze, as they have been put off by its propensity to tarnish,” says Shelly Winters, marketing/sales coordinator for the Franklin, Pa.-based company, which sells copper-plated door handles, knobs, brackets, fixtures and more.
Then came SARS-Co-V-2. Now, even though the potentially lethal invisible enemy is a virus, rather than a germ, the fact that both present just arms-length threats to human health has created an opportunity to revisit those previous decisions.
Wieland Metals, the German company that acquired Global Brass & Copper last year, is one of three North American producers registered with the EPA to supply antimicrobial copper raw materials, along with Hussey Metals and its MD-CU29 product and PMX Industries, which supplies MicroGuard alloys.
Executives from Wieland Rolled Products North America, which markets its antimicrobial product under the CuVerro name, acknowledge the difficulty the industry has had getting a foothold in the market, but has seen interest grow since the pandemic.
“We have already seen a significant increase in our inquiries for antimicrobial copper over the previous two months,” says Christine Schossig, vice president of marketing and communications for Weiland-Werke AG. “Everyone from hospitals to schools to product manufacturers and architects have shown an increased awareness and interest in CuVerro antimicrobial copper.”
Franklin Bronze has seen similar interest, and believes more of the same will follow. “Franklin Bronze expects an increased awareness and acceptance of copper surfaces from hospitals, subways, parks, etc. – where current touch surfaces pose a danger,” Winters says.
Paradoxically, though the coronavirus may be the trigger to increased awareness of copper’s properties, which include greater effectiveness against the coronavirus than other materials, Weiland won’t be using that information to promote their material.
“At this time, antimicrobial copper’s efficacy against coronavirus is not part of the EPA-approved registration, and thus cannot be promoted formally. The research is promising, but it would need to go through EPA approval before it could be marketed,” Schossig says.
Neither Weiland nor the broader CDA plans to change its marketing efforts in response to the outbreak, preferring to stick to its existing campaign. “Our focus has been in supporting our current affiliate manufacturers, along with developing new affiliate manufacturing relationships, to ensure they have the product needed to serve the market,” Schossig says.
“We’re going to make sure that we, and the information on the use and applications of antimicrobial copper and its alloys, are visible and available to assist policy makers and specific markets and market leaders in deploying copper and its alloys on surfaces and in applications where it can best protect their citizens, employees, customers, clients, patients and visitors,” Kireta says. “We’re not going to market products; we’re going to help others develop solutions that use antimicrobial copper.”
Should copper see an uptick in demand as a result of changing priorities, the industry leaders see no reason why the global market won’t be able to support it. “In terms of supplying bronze antimicrobial door handles and fixtures, we are ready for the uptick in demand and ready to supply this needed beneficial product,” Winters says.
The sentiment was shared by the makers of CuVerro. “Wieland North America is fully positioned to serve the market today and in the future. We have a fully established supply chain from raw materials to finished goods, and we, along with our affiliate manufacturers, are ready to handle an uptick in demand as it comes,” Schossig says.
That demand could follow, as industries and businesses and others involved in the global economy may be revisiting all aspects of their operation, with protecting the health of their employees and guests top of mind. But, Kireta warns, this is all about the future.
“The current COVID-19 pandemic is going to offer us a lot of lessons, but it’s up to us to learn them. If nothing else, this crisis has definitely raised the awareness of the importance of community spread of pathogens and the role that commonly touched surfaces play in the transmission of infection and disease through society,” he says.
During the pandemic, those essential operations have been dealing with this issue through repeated cleanings of communal surfaces – shopping carts and door handle push plates and checkout counters. But manual operations don’t have to be the path forward.
“Antimicrobial copper is not going to be a solution to the COVID-19 pandemic. At this point, nothing but the social engineering being imposed to flatten the curve or until a cure or vaccination, or both, are developed is going to do that,” Kireta says. “Antimicrobial copper will play an important part in planning and building to avoid future pandemics, and that’s going to happen over time and not with an explosion of demand.”
Wieland Rolled Products North America has been marketing its CuVerro antimicrobial products for more than 10 years. (Photo courtesy Wieland Rolled Products North America.)[Sidebar]
CDA Responds to COVID-19 Report
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, media reports of a test of surfaces indicated the virus remained viable on copper for less time than most other sampled materials, including cardboard and other metals.
Naturally, the reports generated considerable interest in whether copper could be viewed as an important material in the fight against the virus.
Given the lengthy process the copper industry undertook to be recognized for the EPA for its antimicrobial properties, the Copper Development Association strongly advocated slowing down any rush to judgment until the science could be fully tested.
The CDA, besieged by media requests following the test, released a statement on the association’s position on copper as it relates to COVID-19. The association remarked:
“In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the following clarifying statements were developed as part of CDA’s EPA-mandated Stewardship Plan to address an influx of inquiries from the media and external stakeholders.”
Media reports and public inquiries to CDA have noted several independent studies reporting antimicrobial efficacy of uncoated copper and copper alloy surfaces against human pathogens, including one strain of coronavirus.
There also has been widespread media coverage of a recent U.S. government-funded study conducted by researchers at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the disease COVID-19, remained viable for up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel surfaces vs. up to four hours on copper.
All antimicrobial products marketed and sold in the U.S. are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure the products are safe to use, and that advertising claims about protecting public health, and efficacy against specific pathogens, are supported by rigorous testing under EPA-approved protocols.
Copper alloy materials are registered by the EPA to make public health claims against six specific bacteria (for example, it continuously kills more than 99.9 percent of MRSA within two hours of contact between routine cleanings).
Considering the limited evidence against SARS-CoV-2 referenced above, further testing would be required to assess the effectiveness of copper surfaces and to support EPA-registered product label claims against SARS-CoV-2.
CDA is committed to fulfilling its EPA-mandated stewardship obligations established to convey accurate information to the public and the infection control community about the efficacy and proper use and care of copper alloy materials. Copper surfaces are a supplement to and not a substitute for standard infection control practices.
CDA is committed to supporting the appropriate government agencies and public health officials that express interest in evaluating the potential for copper alloy surfaces to supplement first-line defense measures against COVID-19 including social distancing, practicing proper hand hygiene and routine cleaning of frequently touched surfaces with EPA-registered disinfectants.
For more information on the EPA’s current guidance to identify effective disinfectant products for use against emerging viral pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2, visit the EPA at www.epa.gov.”