Development of Plastic Packaging and Film Resistant to Covid-19
Lead Researchers: Professor Michael Gilchrist and Dr Nan Zhang, UCD School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering; Dr Jaythoon Hassan, UCD National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL); Dr Nicola Fletcher, UCD School of Veterinary Medicine.
Funder: Science Foundation Ireland/Enterprise Ireland/IDA Ireland joint Covid-19 Rapid Response Fund
A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found viable coronavirus particles were still detected on plastic surfaces up to three days after contact. Developing coronavirus-resistant forms of PE and other important plastic films would significantly reduce a major source for the risk of community infections. The project aims to develop a unique form of flexible textured plastic film that will ensure coronavirus does not remain viable for more than 60 minutes.
As of August 21st, the number of confirmed cases worldwide had increased to almost 22.5 million people. Surface contamination has recently been found to be more significant than originally thought in the spread of this viral disease. Despite the use of proper PPE, healthcare workers spread this viral disease due to continuing contact with SARS-CoV-2.
SARS-CoV-2 was found in the air, environment and PPE contamination in hospitals. Besides commonly touched surfaces (tables, beds, door handles, light switches, toilet sites, etc), even anteroom floors and air fan outlets were found to be contaminated. SARS-CoV-2 was particularly stable on plastic, and viable virus was detected up to 72 hours after application to these surfaces.
While efforts are being directed towards the development of vaccines and treatments against Covid-19, the significance of surface contamination in the spread of the virus demands that urgent attention should be paid also to the development of antiviral and antibacterial surfaces, along with decontamination equipment and technologies.
Contamination of latex/nitrile gloves, N95 respirators, hospital scrubs, overshoes, and floors in a nosocomial (hospital) environment is a serious issue, because it helps the uncontrolled spreading of the disease.
Within the wider population, the risk of spreading infection from contact with contaminated plastic packaging is a similar concern. Consequently, developing anti-virus surfaces to prevent potential surface contamination is critical to the longer-term need for society to coexist with Covid-19. This is likely to remain the case, even after the development of a suitable vaccine in the coming months and years.
What will the research project do?
The team, with the help of industry partners, aims to develop nanoscale textures on plastic surfaces to disrupt the lipid bilayer envelope of SARS-CoV-2, thus rendering it inactive. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is generally spherical with a diameter of 60-140nm and is composed of a lipid envelope that contains nucleoprotein.
The lipid envelope has ~100 spike glycoproteins of length ~10nm that bond to receptor proteins of a host cell. Graphene Oxide (GO) has been reported to be effective at deactivating the virus. When cultured with either DNA or RNA viruses, GO suppressed infection with a 2-log reduction in virus titres at noncytotoxic concentrations in 1.5 hours. Deactivation of the virus was attributed to destruction of the virus lipid envelope by the sharp edges of negatively charged GO.
The project’s novel concept builds on this insight and aims to use surface nanostructures combined with GO coatings to deactivate SARS-CoV-2. Nanoneedles of size smaller than 50nm will be imprinted or moulded on polymer film surfaces. GO coatings can be applied to the polymer film’s surface before or after patterning.
By combining a nanoneedle topography and the charged surface from GO, the team aims to deactivate SARS-CoV-2 in under one hour. In principle, the concept can be integrated easily with production scale processes for plastic film packaging via roll-to-roll engraving and spray coating, thereby providing a permanent anti-virus functionality for plastic surfaces and film coatings.
Current disinfection protocols require repeated use of disinfectants. This technology offering is permanent, does not require repeated operation, is environmentally safe, and will protect surfaces from contamination.
The team will investigate and address the stability of Covid-19 on plastic surfaces to provide a rapid solution within six months to what will become a ubiquitous and ongoing societal problem, i.e. the need for protective surfaces that will be resistant to this pervasive virus.
This project will provide scientific information pertaining to virus viability on material surfaces, strengthening Ireland’s reputation in this topical research area.
Success will lead to scale-up for commercial mass production via existing industrial roll-to-roll engraving and spray coating processes. Specific scientific and technological impacts include:
1. Deactivation of SARS-CoV-2 within one hour, on plastic film irrespective of gene mutation.
2. Conversion of existing plastic film materials to be resistant to SARS-CoV-2, and suitable for use directly as food packaging material, protective films in healthcare settings, and more widely as an adhesive barrier layer throughout society.
3. Development of novel foreground technology required subsequently in mass manufacturing injection moulding and extrusion processes.
4. All resulting plastic packaging and film will be environmentally safe, non-toxic and compatible with the circular economy.
5. Significant enhancement of Ireland’s industrial capacity to generate significant export market opportunities worldwide.
Nationally, the involvement of UCD NVRL’s facilitates the immediate sharing of interim and final research data with the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET), WHO, and the Health Protection Surveillance Centre. NVRL Director Dr Cillian De Gascun is a member of NPHET and advises the Department of Health on policy pertaining to Covid- 19.
Dr Jaythoon Hassan, UCD National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL)
Dr Nicola Fletcher, UCD School of Veterinary Medicine
Mr Paul Young, CEO, Foxpak Flexibles
Mr Chris Martin, Research and Development Manager, Alert Packaging
Ms Shirley Keane, Programme Manager, HSE Antimicrobial Resistance & Infection Control
Ms Antoinette Flynn, ADON, Infection Prevention & Control, St Vincent’s University Hospital
Mr Paul Kelly, Director, Food Drink Ireland, IBEC