Self-sterilizing plastic kills viruses like Covid

Plastic sheets self-sterilize when exposed to light

Scientists have developed a virus-killing plastic that could make it harder for viruses, including Covid, to spread in hospitals and care homes.

The Queen’s University Belfast team say their plastic film is cheap and could be turned into protective gear such as aprons.

It works by reacting with light to release chemicals that break down the virus.

The study showed it could kill viruses by the millions, even on hard stuff left on clothes and surfaces.

The investigation was accelerated as part of the UK’s response to the Covid pandemic.

Studies had shown that the Covid virus was able to survive for up to 72 hours on certain surfaces, but this is nothing compared to more resistant species. Norovirus – known as winter vomiting – can survive outside the body for up to two weeks waiting to infect someone new.

The team of chemists and virologists researched self-sterilizing materials that reduce the risk of contaminated surfaces transmitting infections.

Self-sterilizing plastic

Self-sterilizing plastic

The idea is to make a material so hostile to a virus that it cannot survive there. Metallic copper has been shown to kill germs on contact, but is not very flexible.

So the researchers used thin plastic sheets containing titanium dioxide nanoparticles. These react with ultraviolet light—even the tiny amount given off by a fluorescent light bulb—to release molecules called reactive oxygen species.

These are just itching to engage in any chemical reaction. They react with the virus’s genetic material, the proteins it uses to invade our bodies, and the fatty globule that holds it all together. The end result is a dead and useless virus.

“This is the first time anything like this has been developed,” said Professor Andrew Mills, from the university’s chemistry department.

He added: “This film could replace many of the single-use plastic films used in the healthcare industry, as it has the added value of self-sterilization at no real extra cost.”

The material was tested in the lab against four types of viruses – two flu, the Covid virus and a picorna virus, which has the characteristics that make a virus extremely stable outside the body.

In controlled laboratory conditions, approximately one million virus particles were placed in the self-sterilizing plastic. This is far beyond the amount of virus that would be needed to start an infection.

“It goes from a million viruses to nothing and we can see an effect in less than an hour and maximum death in two hours,” said Dr Connor Bamford, from the school of medicine at Queen’s.

“But we add an overabundance of virus to really challenge the system, there’s likely to be an effect in the first few minutes.”

People wearing PPE

The researchers aim to turn their plastic into protective equipment used in hospitals

He said the current personal protective equipment used in hospitals was doing a good job, but “infections can happen when you take off or put on PPE, so this can help.”

Other areas being investigated include hospital tablecloths and curtains, as well as in the food processing industry.

However, proper real-world testing will be needed to understand how much of a difference self-sterilizing protective gear could make.

The study was published in the Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B: Biology.

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