Scientists have developed virus-killing plastic that could make it more difficult for insects, including Covid, to spread to hospitals and nursing homes.
The team from Queen’s University in Belfast says their plastic film is inexpensive and could be made into protective clothing such as aprons.
It works by reacting with light to release chemicals that break down the virus.
The study showed it could kill millions of viruses, even in resistant species that linger on clothing and surfaces.
The research was accelerated as part of the UK’s response to the Covid pandemic.
Studies had shown that the Covid virus was able to survive up to 72 hours on some surfaces, but that’s nothing compared to more robust species. Norovirus, known as the winter vomit bug, can survive outside the body for two weeks while waiting for someone new to infect it.
The team of chemists and virologists studied self-sterilizing materials that reduce the risk of contaminated surfaces spreading infections.
The idea is to create material that is so hostile to a virus that it cannot survive there. Metallic copper has been shown to kill microbes on contact, but it is not very flexible.
Then the researchers used thin sheets of plastic that contained titanium dioxide nanoparticles. These react with ultraviolet light – even the small amount released from a fluorescent light bulb – to release molecules called reactive oxygen species.
These are just itchy to get involved in any chemical reaction. They react with the genetic material of the virus, the proteins it uses to invade our body and the fat ball that holds it together. The end result is a dead and useless virus.
‘This is the first time something like this has been developed,’ said Professor Andrew Mills, of the university’s chemistry department.
He added: “This film could replace many of the disposable plastic films used in the healthcare industry as it has the added bonus of being self-sterilizing at no additional cost.”
The material has been tested in the laboratory against four types of viruses: two flu, the Covid virus and a picornavirus, which has the characteristics that make a virus highly stable outside the body.
Under controlled laboratory conditions, approximately one million viral particles were placed on the self-sterilizing plastic. This is far beyond the amount of virus needed to start an infection.
“It goes from one million viruses to zero, and we can see an effect in less than an hour and maximum death in two hours,” said Dr. Connor Bamford, of Queen’s School of Medicine.
“But we are adding a super amount of viruses to really challenge the system, there is likely to be an effect in the first few minutes.”
He said current personal protective equipment used in hospitals has done a good job, but “infections can occur when PPE is removed or put on, so this can help.”
Other areas under investigation include hospital tablecloths and curtains, as well as in the food processing industry.
However, it will take adequate real-world testing to understand just how much difference self-sterilizing protective clothing could make.
The study was published in the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B: Biology.
Follow Giacomo on Twitter.