What copper might do to pathogens People have been aware of copper’s sanitizing abilities at least as far back as ancient Egypt, said Karrera Djoko, a biochemist and microbiologist at Durham University in England. “Even before we had a concept of what a germ is,” Dr. Djoko said, “we were using copper to contain water” and keep it safe to drink.
For humans, copper is an essential nutrient, which you easily get enough of in a typical diet. But Dr. Djoko said many microbes don’t take to copper so kindly. When copper physically contacts a germ like coronavirus, it can release reactive ions that pummel and puncture the bug’s exterior. That gives the ions access to the microbe’s innards, where they wreak similar havoc on its genetic material.
Copper can be calamitous for microbes in other ways as well, Dr. Johnson said. Metal ions, like iron or zinc, are found in about 40 percent of proteins with known structures, and most likely play essential roles in their function. But in a vicious game of musical chairs, copper that finds its way into a cell or a virus can swoop in and displace other metals, impairing or even destroying the proteins it commandeers.
“If 40 percent of your proteins don’t work, you don’t work,” Dr. Johnson said. Copper may even be capable of jamming up proteins that typically run metal-free by simply glomming onto their surfaces.
Even our own immune systems appear to exploit copper’s protective perks. Some evidence suggests that immune cells like macrophages — which gobble up and destroy bacteria, viruses and other microbes — may be capable of engulfing and sequestering germs in an acidic “ball of death” chamber that’s then spiked with lethal doses of copper, Dr. Johnson said. “Our bodies have been using this for warfare” long before copper masks hit the market, he added.
But it remains to be seen which of these scenarios will play out with the coronavirus, and to what extent. Dr. Johnson is one of several scientists currently on the case, tinkering with copper to suss out exactly how it exerts its apparently potent effects on this dangerous germ.