The recent coronavirus outbreak is one of many pandemics that have plagued the world and it’s safe to say that it is likely not the last one we will see. It has taught us that even in these advanced times many areas of the world still need more effective ways of fighting a pandemic. This could take the form of more advanced testing capabilities, more effective ways of controlling the spread of a virus, or more sterile working environments.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic triggered a rapid response from the advanced materials industry, and this has led to a number of different developments happening over the last couple of months. While there has not been as much movement in the last few weeks, a lot of groundwork has been put in to ensure that advanced materials have their place in future pandemic responses. Depending on how long this current outbreak goes on, we could also see more advanced material solutions on the frontline of the COVID-19 outbreak, but that’s yet to be seen. Below, we look at a few of the areas which have seen a lot of interest for advanced material usage during the outbreak.
Point of care (PoC) diagnostics offer, in my opinion, the biggest potential for advanced materials during a pandemic response. The enhanced sensing capabilities that can be achieved by using nanomaterials, alongside its portable (i.e. small) nature, outstrips many other application areas. The ability to create diagnostic platforms that can give a real-time result is important for both the COVID-19 outbreak and any future pandemics, as many of the RT-PCR tests being used to diagnose if a person has the coronavirus require a sample being sent off to a lab for analysis (which can take time to get a result).
The use of nanomaterial in biosensors and microfluidic PoC devices is well-documented and there are already nanomaterial-based diagnostic platforms in use that can detect viruses. So, for some of these tests, it’s just a case of changing the receptors on the sensing platform to target the protein spikes of the coronavirus.
Two of the most promising areas to be developed to test against the coronavirus are graphene-based and plasmonic (based around using gold nanoparticles) biosensors, as well as some other nanocarbon-based sensors. These include both academic and commercial developments, with a number of these biosensors already available on the market.
Graphene has become a favorable option for sensors because it’s active surface area can be functionalized with specific molecular groups that attach to a target of interest―in this case, the protein spikes of the SARS-CoV-2 viral strain. It’s high electrical conductivity and charge carrier mobility can then provide a rapid response when the virus binds, and this can be translated into a readable output that shows that a person has the coronavirus.
On the other hand, gold-based sensors utilize the surface plasmons of the gold nanoparticles―which are easily excitable surface electrons that can be utilized to provide a sensitive response upon binding to the functionalized nanoparticle. There are also other gold-based biosensors where the receptor and target strands melt upon contact, providing a detectable response, so there a few different ways in which gold nanoparticles (and other nanomaterials) can be utilized to detect coronavirus (and other viral) strains.
Antiviral nanocoatings are another big area with a lot of potential. However, many are already available for tackling a range of viruses (as well as bacteria in some cases) so this area is merely an extension of what is currently available, applied to a new setting―unlike the diagnostic platforms which have been specifically tailored to detect the current coronavirus strain. Nevertheless, nanomaterial-based antiviral coatings are something which could have a huge impact during a pandemic response, especially in clinical areas where a sterile environment is key to prevent a virus from spreading.
The prior use of antiviral nanocoatings before the COVID-19 outbreak means that there is a lot of different options available on the market, and nanomaterial antiviral coatings composed of silver and copper are well-documented, as are some polymer-based nanomaterials. When it comes to using nanocoatings to kill the coronavirus, many nanomaterial-based antiviral coatings are suitable (because they are very active coatings) but some have been developed with the coronavirus in mind.
Looking at the scope of what’s available, there are nanomaterial smartphone coatings which use copper to kill viruses and this could be important because of how often we touch our phones followed by other surfaces. There have also been nanomaterial-based coatings sprays developed for personal and clinical settings that can last for five years without needing to be re-applied. There are also a number of polymer-based coatings which house metals with anti-viral properties, so there is a lot of scope in this area where advanced materials can really help to slow the spread of viruses on a range of surfaces (which are used in different settings from the home to the hospital).
The use of advanced materials in face masks is an interesting and debated area. There are now a number of different masks which use advanced materials, namely graphene, on the market. However, despite providing an enhanced protection, the jury is still out on whether this area is making the full use of the advanced materials within it.
First off, there’s no doubt that these types of mask will have their market, but it’s unlikely to be in the areas that need masks the most, for example, public healthcare employees. If you take the average healthcare budget, there is not going to be much room for buying more expensive masks. In fact, many healthcare settings require the largest volume of personal protective equipment (PPE) at the lowest cost possible. Even if the nanomaterial masks come down to low price levels, it’s unlikely that they’ll hit a price point that is feasible for the healthcare systems in many countries.
That being said, nothing should be taken away from the developments in this field as the virus filtering properties do outstrip that of many basic masks, so the average person who wants to spend more on getting an enhanced protection will now have that option. It may be that more private healthcare industries have the money to spend on advanced PPE for their staff as well. Compared to the other two areas here, it’s unlikely that advanced material face mask will have as big of an impact during a pandemic response, despite there being products available―especially when there are a number of high-quality N95 masks available nowadays, as well as many cheap and disposable masks.
Like all the different areas mentioned here, only time will tell if the face masks prove a popular option. Aside from the three areas mentioned here, there are also a number of nanomedicine solutions being developed in response to the coronavirus, but that will be covered in a different article.
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Liam is a writer and communicator who specializes in nanotechnology and chemistry, with over 700 articles published to date. Aside from writing, Liam is a member of the advisory board for the National Graphene Association (NGA) and Nanotechnology World Association (NWA), as well as member of the Trustee board for the UK charity GlamSci. Liam is also member of the AMPT UK Chapter.