A Potential Ally In the Fight Against Bacteria and Viruses? Copper.

History has shown the metal's usefulness during other pandemics

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One possible way to fight a pandemic?

Invest in copper. As Shayla Love of Vice notes, people who worked with copper or in the copper industry during past pandemics had better survival numbers.

Love cites several incidents, starting with copper workers, jewelers, goldsmiths and boilermakers who didn’t contract cholera during the multiple outbreaks in Paris in the mid-19th century. One statistic (as uncovered by physician Victor Burq): 3.7 out of 1000 people died of cholera in 1865 in the city, but in the copper industry, that rate was 0.5.

As Burq later wrote, “Copper or its alloys, brass and bronze, applied literally and pregnantly to the skin in the cholera epidemic are effective means of prevention which should not be neglected.”

As Vice suggests, copper could help prevent the spread of microbes ranging from norovirus to E. Coli to, yes, possibly, coronaviruses. As for how: By adding copper fixtures to furniture and other communal items in healthcare settings, homes, public transport, gyms and public spaces (e.g. Grand Central’s grand staircase). It’s not a cure-all and would need more research, but one study from 1983 showed that hospital knobs made of brass (which is part copper) had almost zero E. Coli growth, compared with stainless steel knobs.

Love’s piece primarily focuses on the issue of contamination within health care facilities, which is important: Healthcare-acquired infections (HAI) create an additional 1.7 million infections and a cost up to $45 billion per year. In one 2012 experiment, adding copper to less than 10 percent of the surface area of a room reduced HAIs by 58 percent.

Bonus: Copper keeps its antimicrobial properties, even after heavy use and recycling/reuse. While it’s certainly not cheaper than other materials, but it could pay for itself given the potential reduced rate of HAIs and cost of care.

Given this knowledge, maybe one place you should be working during a pandemic? A distillery.

(Editor’s note: After publishing, we slightly readjusted the framing of the opening paragraphs to emphasize the historical perspective here and to stress that this is all theoretical.)

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