An innovative antimicrobial coating innovation developed locally by the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) researcher and inventor Michael Lucas, could provide a supplementary sanitising solution to help control the spread of the novel coronavirus in hospitals and other medical facilities.
The antimicrobial coating innovation, which earned Lucas the prestigious Prix Hubert Tuor Innovation Award at the International Conference on Prevention and Infection Control in Geneva in 2019, was specifically designed to help mitigate the transmission of pathogens from touch-contact surfaces.
Lucas highlights that infection control has always been a challenge in hospitals and this is significantly heightened with the current Covid-19 pandemic.
“My design for a self-sanitising surface coating serves to address the problem of surface contamination and subsequent microbial transmission which are known contributors to hospital-acquired infections.”
The metals used in the antimicrobial coatings, particularly silver and copper, are known to be effective in eliminating viruses on contact.
Although a successful limited trial was performed to validate the efficacy of these coatings as antibacterial and antifungal agents, funding to get the innovation to market remains a challenge.
The trials repeatedly showed complete microbial elimination within only a 15-minute contact period. These tests were conducted under laboratory conditions against a variety of dangerous pathogens, including a multidrug-resistant staphylococcus strain, that are found on hospital high-contact surfaces.
Preliminary pilot studies validated the results, using coated security access cards and a custom coated smartphone cover exposed to various healthcare-associated environments within the Wits Medical School and adjacent Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital.
To effectively validate the coatings’ antiviral efficacy, proof-of-concept laboratory tests need to be performed. This would be the first step towards actionable implementation of the innovation as a means of combating the spread of Covid-19.
The coatings are intended to be an effective supplementary approach to infection prevention and control and so would ideally work alongside existing sanitising protocols.
Lucas explains that the time between the cleaning of surfaces becomes a critical factor in potential contamination and subsequent transmission.
“By introducing a surface which has the ability to continuously work to eliminate bacterial, fungal and possibly viral contamination, we can reduce the chance of a transmission chain.”
He enthuses that once laboratory trials confirm the efficacy of these contact-killing surface coatings against Covid-19 in particular, fast-tracked integration into hospitals, clinics and temporary healthcare facilities could then become a reality, provided the machine used to deposit the coatings is up and running.
Although the coatings were developed using infrastructure at Wits, Lucas points out that any potential upscaling in mass production would require additional manufacturing facilities.
Currently, the cold spray unit which is a key component of the process requires routine maintenance and is not operational, but Lucas and his team are in communication with the supplier of the equipment regarding possible solutions.
In this regard, the lack of funding is a limiting factor in getting the equipment up and running expeditiously.
The coating equipment is portable, thereby improving productivity, as surfaces can be sprayed in situ. However, component size would be constrained by the spray booth dimensions of the in-house cold spray unit, thereby leading to smaller surface units being preferential.
Applying the coatings to smartphones, tablets and other portable electronic devices is also another avenue being keenly looked at by Lucas, as these devices are extensively used by doctors, nurses, other healthcare workers, patients and the rest of the public.
This makes them “an ideal target for retrofitting with self-sanitising surface coatings,” he says, adding that doctors and nurses in temporary, pop-up healthcare facilities may be able to access patient files remotely using such devices. “Having a smartphone cover with effective touch-contact antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral activity would greatly reduce the risk of further infection transmission.”
Further, the uniqueness of Lucas’s innovative way of depositing the coatings is a competitive advantage that Wits is protecting through a patent.
A private company, wholly-owned by Wits, Wits Commercial Enterprise innovation support manager Tumi Ngqondo says the company will continue to work with Lucas as he takes the next steps to finalise development and commercialise the innovation.