Game-changers: two inventions vital to the battle against Covid-19

Local inventor finds novel way to sanitise hospital surfaces

06 April 2020 - 13:47 By Tanya Farber
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New self-sanitising surface coating will help to address infection control in hospitals, food processing plants and public transport surfaces.

When a Wits inventor walked off with an international prize late last year, he had no idea how important his invention would become as Covid-19 hit the world.

Michael Lucas, a PhD student in the school of mechanical engineering, had over the course of five years developed a metallised coating that can be added to surfaces in hospitals to make them capable of self-sanitising.

Lucas said the Covid-19 pandemic had propelled the use of sanitisers, both commercially and domestically, to the fore but in the meantime, bacteria start adapting and becoming resistant to it.

According to a study — the first of its kind — published in Science Translational Medicine in 2018, it came to light that bacteria had begun adjusting to alcohol-based sanitisers and were becoming “more tolerant”.

Lucas explained: “Sanitiser-tolerant bacteria, particularly within hospitals, would put even greater strain on infection prevention and control practices.” 

He said the novel coronavirus had also put “increased pressure on the need for adequate surface sanitation in hospitals and other health-care facilities”.

The revolutionary infection control solution is being protected by Wits University through a patent, and scooped Lucas top honours at the International Conference on Prevention and Infection Control in Switzerland in September 2019.

The antimicrobial surface coatings, which can be applied on to existing surfaces, rely on the “innate antimicrobial properties of the metals copper, silver and zinc,” he explained.

With hospital-acquired infections having become a problem across the world, “alternative solutions are needed”, said Lucas.

He said that common hospital surfaces were made of stainless steel and plastic, and these were “sites of contamination”.

By adding a self-sanitising surface coating, the risk of infections was lowered.

“This would not only save money for the government and hospitals, but it would also save lives,” he says.

Lucas’s coating could be retrofitted on to existing high-contact surfaces, but he also considers a future in which “a critical redesign of such surfaces could be considered”.

The innovation has been extensively tested in the laboratory and at a limited scale already in health-care facilities and public spaces in and around the university, with “encouraging results”.

The next stage of development will require partnerships with hospitals in running a pilot for six to 12 months, with the only limitation at the moment being funding.

Covid-19 has also sparked other innovations across the globe.

Drawing much attention has been Formula One racing manufacturer Mercedes.

Working with engineers and clinicians at University College London, they came up with a breathing aid that could be mass-produced quickly.

This would reduce the need for ventilators, as many countries struggle to keep up with supply during the pandemic.

Called the CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device, it was reverse-engineered from an existing machine in under 100 hours and so far its use in hospitals in Italy and China has reduced the need for ventilators by about 50%.

According to Prof Mervyn Singer, a critical-care expert at University College London Hospitals, “This device will help to save lives by ensuring that ventilators, a limited resource, are used only for the most severely ill.”

It is hoped that Mercedes and other F1 teams could produce as many as 1,000 a day once clinical trials are complete.

Prof Tim Baker, from University College London, said as soon as the team got the brief, “we worked all hours of the day, disassembling and analysing an off-patent device”.

“Using computer simulations, we improved the device further to create a state-of-the-art version suited to mass production.”

Lucas's research was funded by the National Research Foundation, the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Strong Materials and SITA Information Networking Computing UK.

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