Features | From Pivot Magazine

Tales from the frontlines of the microbial frontier 

How developers are refining sprays, barriers, and even fabrics designed to kill viral germs on contact

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Illustration of microbe-shaped balloon floating near cactusGlobally, demand for products that keep people safe from COVID-19, including germ-killing walls, door handles and fabrics, is expected to increase by 8.2 per cent for each of the next five years (Illustration by Matthew Billington)

When swine flu broke out in Africa in 2009, a Canadian invention was deployed by farmers in the fight against it: washable, unbreakable stalls to house pigs, keeping them separated to prevent the spread of disease. Made by Trusscore, a material sciences company in Palmerston, Ont., formerly known as MSW Plastics, the PVC uber-pens had proven durable, standing up to a force beyond normal construction wear and tear: heavy, often slop-covered animals.

When COVID-19 hit, Trusscore CEO Dave Caputo realized the pigpens, called NorLock panels, held promise for separating people, too, and the firm quickly developed new product called TempWall—this time coated in a Microban Aegis Microbe Shield that, during FDA testing, has been shown to kill 99.9 per cent of germs, including the novel coronavirus. “Our walls are already inherently inhospitable to bacteria because they have a non-porous, easy-to-clean, smooth surface,” says Caputo. “The addition of the antimicrobial surface treatment added another layer of protection.”

At a time when most economic data is bleak—the Canadian economy is expected to shrink by 8.2 per cent in 2020, according to the Conference Board of Canada, and 8.4 per cent according to the International Monetary Fund—antimicrobial surfaces could be a bright spot. Globally, demand for products that keep people safe from COVID-19, including germ-killing walls, door handles, hand rails and fabrics, is expected to increase by 8.2 per cent for each of the next five years. 

That means for Trusscore the space is competitive. Edmonton-based inventor Doug Olson spent the early part of his career in meat processing. Intrigued by the way salt can cure cuts of beef and pork, preventing spoilage, he had some testing done at a private lab to look into the mineral’s broader applications. (Later, his company began an ongoing research partnership with the University of Alberta in 2010.) Through a 2017 study independently reviewed by the British Journal of Hospital Infection, the team discovered that salt can compress to astounding densities—replicating the hard, non-brittle surface of a ceramic tile—and that it can kill many deadly bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), an antibiotic-resistant staph infection that can affect the heart and lungs.

The company that grew out of Olson’s work, called Outbreaker Solutions, is currently looking for partners interested in licensing the patented product. “It has a lot of potential commercial implications,” says Matt Hodgson, Outbreaker’s co-founder, along with Brayden Whitlock. “It can be used for anything you touch—doorknobs, light switches. We’re seeing a lot of interest from the hospitality industry.” That interest is likely to be buoyed now that Outbreaker has won a COVID innovations competition led by the pharmaceuticals giant Roche Canada. The prize was an unspecified R&D grant that Outbreaker is putting toward testing how quickly the coronavirus dies on contact. 

If salt-based doorknobs or upgraded pig stalls for COVID protection seem avant-garde, there are also more conventional anti-microbial inventions to consider. Quebec-based A3 Surfaces is currently testing a process that anodizes and seals the pores in aluminum with a proprietary anti­microbial agent that can be applied to aluminum surfaces like the grab bars in all forms of public transit. The metal stays protected for at least a year and can be retreated; an early National Research Council Canada study found that it killed 99.9 per cent of bacteria. Health Canada is in the process of its own review. Etobicoke, Ont.-based Myant, meanwhile, has developed fabrics knitted through with antimicrobial fibres, including copper threads. 

At least six U.S. studies have shown copper to be a natural disinfectant that kills COVID-19, among other things. Myant’s first application is face masks, which have already been released for sale through the company’s website. “Conceptually speaking, any textile surface that you come into contact with can be engineered with these properties,” says Hannah Fung, Myant’s director of marketing. 

“Think of the textile surfaces in public spaces like waiting rooms or on public transit. These are all high-touch surfaces that are constantly being interacted with by many individuals but don’t frequently get sanitized.” 

That said, some sources question whether antimicrobial materials are worth the investment. America’s Centers for Disease Control points out that studies proving antimicrobial surfaces prevent the actual spread of illness are scant. Consulting firm McKinsey has noted the economic danger of antimicrobial resistance—resistance that occurs when bugs become resilient to whatever virus—and bacteria-busting treatments we invent. And natural surfaces such as copper are not necessarily as enduring as man-made ones. 

One study, published in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution, has shown that, through history, increases in the use of copper have coincided with a harmful increase in antimicrobial resistance, including in E. coli. COVID-19 is already showing signs of mutating, so it’s hard to know if effective shields will continue to kill the virus as it adapts. A big part of winning the antimicrobial market will be proving the efficacy of the intervention over the long term. 

On the microbial frontier, the risk of over-investing varies from business to business. Myant’s copper-threaded fabrics aren’t a huge pivot from its already-established business of producing sensor-enabled clothing that measures vital signs for the health industry. The firm chose masks for its first anti-COVID venture because there was a clear demand. “The government had made a public call to Canadian businesses to help with the PPE shortage situation,” says Fung. “Our leadership rapidly assessed our core competencies and figured out a way to realign our expertise. 

Our knitting machines, engineers—everyone—are all under one roof, allowing us to be extremely agile. We went from ideation to commercialization in a matter of weeks.” Companies such as A3 and Outbreaker face bigger risks: spending years developing technologies, waiting and hoping for Health Canada approvals—and that the market will still need their products once they become available. 

The risks, however, can pay off. Trusscore’s TempWalls are already a success—they’re producing 400 of the panels a day for use in hospitals across North America. The test case took place at the emergency rooms at Grand River and St. Mary’s in Kitchener, Ont. (St. Mary’s head of emergency, Jay Green, helped develop the product). Other clients include the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina and temporary Ontario field hospitals in Hanover, Kincardine and London. The temporary barrier works in emergency rooms because it can be easily moved around between waiting areas, halls and all the other potentially cramped spaces where patients might otherwise find it hard to stay two metres apart. 

Beyond its hospital use, the product is showing other signs of paying off. In May, TempWall helped the startup secure $5 million in seed financing—the largest investment in the company’s 13-year history. Fundraising started well before COVID, but Tempwall’s pandemic performance helped boost that figure. Trusscore’s next challenge will be to diversify and scale up—adapting the wall for use as cubicle barriers, for instance, to help Canadians get back to their offices. That’s something many home-bound employees might be willing to pay for themselves.


Read how tech firms are out-boxing Big Pharma in the fight against COVID-19, how a new breed of fitness tech is re-defining the home gym and why contactless grocery shopping could soon be available at a store near you.