For more than 10,000 years, copper has played numerous critical roles in human civilization. The red metal’s pliability, conductivity and durability have seen it used in everything from early tools to plumbing to modern electronics. In fact, copper is now so ubiquitous that the health of the copper market is often a predictor of the health of the economy overall — a fact that has earned it the nickname “Doctor Copper.”
Today, as the world grapples with a pandemic, it turns out that the “Doctor” also has an important part to play in healthcare, thanks to an unusual property that makes the metal a coronavirus killer. Copper is naturally anti-microbial, eliminating up to 99.9 per cent of harmful bacteria and viruses by “punching holes in the microorganisms,” according to Dr. Titus Wong, regional medical director of Infection Control at Vancouver Coastal Health.
A recent study from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Center for Disease Control, UCLA and Princeton University scientists found that the COVID-19 virus survived for less than four hours on copper surfaces, compared to up to three days on plastic and stainless steel. And a new Vancouver Coastal Health study, supported by Teck, confirmed copper’s durability and infection control benefits in a hospital setting. The study confirmed the effectiveness of using copper to kill unwanted bacteria and viruses, demonstrating that it can be used to combat the spread of diseases such as COVID-19.
That research is part of the Copper and Health program that Teck has been working on in cooperation with healthcare professionals and partners in academia since 2016. The goal of the program is to assess copper’s potential to make communities safer by reducing healthcare-acquired infections (HAIs). HAIs are the fourth-leading cause of death in Canada, costing our healthcare system more than $1 billion annually. According to York Health Economics Consortium, the cost of installing antimicrobial copper can be recouped in less than two months as a result of savings found through a significant reduction in patient infections and reduced length of hospital stay.
Copper has already been installed on high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs, counters, bedrails, light switches, and railings across more than 300 healthcare facilities in 26 countries. Through Copper and Health, Teck has supported increased awareness and research on copper’s antimicrobial use in Canada, as well as pilot projects to test it in healthcare settings. This includes installation of copper-infused countertops in Vancouver General Hospital — the first such use of copper in a Canadian hospital.
As the current global pandemic has made clear, sanitizing surfaces is critical not just in hospitals, but in all high traffic areas. In Santiago, Chile, ten kilometres of copper-alloy handrails have already been installed along the subway lines, with plans to add more copper surfaces throughout the transit system. An automobile plant in Ontario recently installed copper-coated handrails as part of COVID-19 prevention measures prior to restarting. Copper surfaces are also appearing in training centres for professional sports teams, in airports, and in restaurants, where uses range from exercise equipment to elevator buttons to kitchen appliances. At Teck’s own Vancouver headquarters, we’ve installed copper door handles to help keep employees and guests healthy.
While this progress is promising, we are still in the very early stages of adopting copper for infection prevention. As a major copper producer with an abundance of mineral resources and mining expertise, Canada can help lead a global shift towards the use of copper surfaces both in healthcare, as well as the surfaces we all touch every day, to help save lives.
Of course, the most effective means to combat COVID-19, or any other virus, remain frequent handwashing, good hygiene, and physical distancing practices. However, the strategic use of copper can supplement these important strategies to make our physical environment actively fight back against harmful bacteria and viruses. It’s also an opportunity for Canada to champion our responsible mining industry while contributing to solving a global health challenge.
Don Lindsay is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Teck Resources, and chair of the Business Council of Canada