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Copper and Copper Alloys Found to Destroy Norovirus

Sarah Warnes, foreground, and Bill Keevil

Sarah Warnes, foreground, and Bill Keevil (University of Southampton)

Biologists at University of Southampton in the U.K. found surfaces made of copper and copper alloys can quickly destroy norovirus, the pathogen causing acute gastroenteritis. Researcher Sarah Warnes and Bill Keevil, director of the university’s Environmental Healthcare Unit, published their findings earlier this week in the online journal PLoS One.

Norovirus is a highly contagious virus that is spread easily from one person to another, through contaminated food or water, or simply by touching contaminated surfaces. The virus causes acute gastroenteritis or stomach flu, resulting in inflammation of the stomach and intestines, with symptoms including watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea or vomiting, and sometimes fever.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, norovirus causes 19 to 21 million illnesses in the U.S. each year, resulting in 56,000 to 71,000 hospitalizations. Southampton University says norovirus  is responsible for 267 million cases of acute gastroenteritis worldwide. In the U.K. alone, says the university, norovirus leads to some 3,000 hospitalizations per year, costing the country’s National Health Service £100 million ($US 158 million) or more.

In addition to being the most common cause of foodborne-disease outbreaks in the U.S., norovirus spreads quickly in health care environments and confined spaces, such as cruise ships. Copper or copper alloys were already known as antimicrobial materials, effective against bacteria and fungi, but were not yet tested with norovirus. Warnes and Keevil also sought to discover the impact of copper exposure on the norovirus genome.

The researchers simulated contamination from fingertips touching surfaces, using murine (mouse) norovirus, a close relative of the human norovirus, as the target. They tested the spread of norovirus contamination with copper and its various alloys, compared to stainless steel as the control material.

Warnes and Keevil found alloys with 60 percent or more copper quickly inactivated norovirus, with impact on the pathogen proportional to the amount of copper in the alloy. Copper-nickel alloys were also found to work quite effectively. Brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, however was not shown to work as quickly with norovirus as it inactivated bacterial contamination. Stainless steel, on the other hand, showed no effect on norovirus.

The researchers look specifically at the effects of copper on the norovirus genome, to get a better idea of the way copper is toxic to norovirus. They found copper degraded the norovirus genome, reducing the concentration of the NS5 gene that encodes the viral protein considered essential for infections.

Keevil noted that norovirus is a hardy species that “can remain infectious on solid surfaces and is also resistant to many cleaning solutions.” Keevil adds that “Copper surfaces, like door handles and taps, can disrupt the cycle and lower the risk of outbreaks.”

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