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Cape Breton researchers looking into plastic that kills COVID-19

Nova Scotia

A research team at Cape Breton University is hoping to find organic nanoparticles that will kill any COVID-19 that lands on plastic packaging.

Dr. Beth Mason, CEO of the Verschuren Centre at Cape Breton University, is hoping her team can come up with plastic packaging that will kill COVID-19 on contact.(Tom Ayers/CBC)

A research team at Cape Breton University is hoping to find organic nanoparticles that will kill any COVID-19 that lands on plastic packaging.

Dr. Beth Mason, CEO of the Verschuren Centre for Sustainability in Energy and the Environment, said her team was already working with organic nanoparticles to make food packaging safer when funding became available for coronavirus research.

Mason said metals and biopolymers found in algae and sea shells could also disable or kill COVID-19, and they could be applied to all kinds of plastic wrapping, not just food packaging.

"I can tell you I'm excited about the prospect of not washing my groceries when I get them home and I suspect a lot of other people would be, too," she said with a laugh.

Verschuren Centre research is usually funded by industry with a specific goal in mind. Mason said her team is already working with Copol International, a plastic film manufacturer in North Sydney, to make packaging material that breaks down easily after use.

That company won't necessarily be making antiviral plastic if Mason's research is successful, but she said the results would likely be patented and then licensed to a manufacturer who could quickly make packaging widely available.

Safety barriers needed

The challenge is finding a non-toxic polymer that will break down COVID-19 but won't change the essential nature of plastic packaging, said Mason.

Mason said even though social restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are easing, people will continue to worry about picking up COVID-19 from things they touch.

"Until we have a vaccine that is perfectly efficacious, we need those safety barriers and if we can provide another safety barrier — that being contact transmission — it's massive," she said.

Research assistants Ury Uryev, left, and Edward Cross examine a polymer test in Dr. Beth Mason's lab at Cape Breton University's Verschuren Centre.(Tom Ayers/CBC)

Cape Breton University does not have any COVID-19 in the lab to test the viability of polymers, Mason said. The $70,000 project is jointly funded by Research Nova Scotia and the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation. Partners at the University of New Brunswick have other partners who can test COVID-19 on the lab's trial results, she said.

Discovering a way to kill COVID-19 on the surfaces of objects could have global implications, but Mason said she is not overawed by the magnitude of her research.

"It is absolutely incredible that in Cape Breton and Nova Scotia we can tackle something this big, but I have faith that we can do that in everything we do," she said.

"I think a lot of what we do is going to have global impact, and this will just be one example that maybe more people will see, because it's so close in our lives and impacts everybody so much."

Mason said it's too soon to tell whether her research will work, but she said it looks promising.

Research Nova Scotia CEO Stefan Leslie said 17 coronavirus projects have been reviewed and approved by independent scientists and are now underway in the province.

They include Mason's research plus studies on vaccines, the effects of COVID-19 on people and its impact on families and vulnerable communities.

Leslie said there is no guarantee any of them will be successful, but all will be valuable.

"Even if it is something that won't work, it is good to know, because then we can pursue things that might," he said.

About the Author

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 16 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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