Researchers in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are collaborating on a way to reduce the transmission of the novel coronavirus on the surfaces of items we touch in our daily lives.
Biochemist Beth Mason, head of the Verschuren Centre at Cape Breton University, is leading the quest to develop a special coating for plastic packaging that would kill or disable the virus on contact.
The polymer-based coating, if successful, would attack the cell functions the virus needs to survive and remain effective for up to three months — reducing the need to wipe down and disinfect a variety of store-bought goods.
“Pretty much everything we do involves some degree of packaging and that’s a massive surface area for contact transmission,” Mason said.
“Because you can’t be washing all the time and disinfecting all the time, there’s like this hidden risk that the virus is going to be on a surface somewhere and that creates a fear for people.”
According to Mason, the novel coronavirus is stable and viable on plastic surfaces for up to 72 hours.
The coating would be embedded in the packaging of goods at the manufacturing stage and could be found on anything from cereal boxes to the packaging of personal protective equipment.
In collaboration with the University of New Brunswick, Mason is testing a variety of combinations for the coating, and there’s a “good likelihood” that some of them will work.
“What we need to look at is how long they will last for, and we also need to make sure we cover all the bases on safety, and whether there’s any migration of product if it’s in food for example, or contact surfaces, that everything we use is safe for the people.”
Mason’s team is partnering with the University of New Brunswick on the research.
When they’ve found the strongest coating candidates, she said, they’ll send those contents to a virology lab be tested against the actual virus.
The work is one of more than a dozen COVID-19 projects funded by Research Nova Scotia. It’s also receiving support from the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation.
While many researchers across the globe focus on developing a vaccine, Research Nova Scotia CEO Stefan Leslie said it’s important that other initiatives examine a cross-section of socioeconomic impacts from the pandemic.
That will allow researchers to develop a diverse set of prevention measures for a possible second and third wave.
“Understanding the full dimensions of it has been really important,” said Leslie. “Beth Mason’s project was the first one we supported that was looking at this particular dimension of COVID-19.”
Mason and her research team hope to have a successful polymer-based, coronavirus-killing coating for packages within a year.
According to Research Nova Scotia, it could not only result in customized antiviral coatings but have commercial applications as well.
Jim Cormier, head of the Retail Council of Canada Atlantic chapter, said the research sounds interesting, but it’s worth asking whether it would raise the cost of manufactured goods.
“Packaging is only supposed to be a fraction of the cost of a product,” he said.
“So of course, manufacturers, in particular, would have to ask that question… ‘Would (consumers) be willing to pay more if it meant they would have that little bit of extra security, or would they be willing to continue wiping down the products that they buy at retail establishments across the country, and continue doing that themselves?”