A solution to this problem is to use copper-based alloys and paints instead of aluminium or stainless steel which are currently used in hospitals, GP surgeries, dental practices as well schools and offices. The role of copper to eliminate disease has been known since at least ancient Egyptian times but the mechanism only began to be understood in the 19th century. The mechanism by which this works is called the oligodynamic effect in which the release of ions can kill bacteria and viruses in mere hours.
The cost of superbug infections including MRSA and E. Coli to the NHS is staggering. Other than the increased mortality for patients, E. Coli costs the NHS £14 million annually while MRSA cost nearly triple that at £45 million. A recent Imperial College study found that 1 superbug outbreak in a single hospital can cost almost £1 million. The NHS is not just facing a problem with COVID-19 but infection rates and disease transmission for decades has cost the public purse billions of pounds and with drug resistant strains becoming more common.
However, we have a chance to implement a solution that will not only benefit the public now but will for generations to come. By using copper-based alloys and copper-based paints on surfaces that are known to transmit pathogens we can eliminate a large percentage of transmission and reduce infections drastically. Studies have shown that 99% of E. coli was eliminated from copper and brass in 2 hours whereas it was able to live on steel for 30 days. With the H1N1 swine flu virus, the pathogen was reduced by 50% on steel after 6 hours whereas on a copper surface this was reduced by 99.99% in 6 hours. This is a virus which in 2010 cost NHS London £19 million. Another study found that MRSA was eliminated from brass surfaces in under 5 hours and on pure copper in less than 2. With COVID-19, a study by the US National Institute of Health found that on copper, COVID-19 was 99% eliminated in 4 hours whereas on steel it remained for 3 days. While drug resistant strains of pathogens are becoming ever more present, they have yet to find a way to be copper resistant over 3000 years which is something that cannot be underestimated.
While an initial retrofit is not the cheapest initial solution, a change to the Building Standards for new public buildings including hospitals and schools would minimise an initial increase in expenditure while reaping the reward of lower disease transmission. In time, when the infection rates in new hospitals with copper surfaces are significantly reduced and a cost benefit realised, a retrofit of all hospitals, GP surgeries, dentists and ultimately all public buildings would reduce the burden on the NHS in terms of both patient numbers and financially with each passing year.
While there will always be the need for cleaners in all public buildings, copper surfaces can clean itself consistently without any human interaction. With this strategy and use of metallic antimicrobial properties, the United Kingdom could be in a position where in our hospitals, our pathogen transmission hotspots are cleaning themselves 24 hours a day, every day. When a cleaner may have missed a door handle, the door handle cleans itself. Where a patient leaves E. Coli on a bannister, the bannister cleans itself. When MRSA is left on the railings of a bed, the surface kills it before the next patient arrives. Infections rate plummet, patient health improves, the burden on staff reduces and the expenditure fighting unnecessary pathogen transmissions is potentially cut by £Billions
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