Scientists say they have discovered that copper and copper alloy surfaces are capable of destroying the highly contagious sickness bug, norovirus, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Norovirus is the most common trigger of gastroenteritis, causing individuals to experience stomach pain, vomiting, nausea and diarrhea. The infection is at its most prominent during winter months but can be contracted all year round.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), norovirus is the cause of between 19 and 21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis (inflammation of the intestines, stomach or both) every year in the US.

The infection is highly contagious and can be contracted from contaminated food or water, person-to-person contact, and contact with contaminated surfaces. However, researchers from the University of Southampton in the UK say their new discovery could “shut down one avenue of infection.”

According to the researchers, previous studies have shown that copper alloys are effective antimicrobial surfaces against various bacteria and fungi.

For this study, the scientists created an environment to simulate “finger-touch contamination” of surfaces to determine whether copper would be effective against the norovirus infection.

In particular, the researchers focused on testing copper toxicity against the viral genome and a reduced number of the gene for a viral encoded protein, VPg (viral-protein-genome-linked), which is critical for the activation of the norovirus infection.

Results of the analysis revealed that on surfaces containing more than 60% copper, murine norovirus (norovirus infection found in mice) was rapidly destroyed at room temperature.

Professor William Keevil of the Institute for Life Sciences at the University of Southampton and Sarah Warnes of the Center for Biological Sciences at the university explained their findings to Medical News Today:

This new detailed study shows that various copper alloy surfaces rapidly kill norovirus and destroy the positive single-strand RNA genome, thus there is no chance of mutation leading to emergence of potential copper resistance.

The virus survived on conventional stainless steel surfaces. The mode of action involves copper(I) and copper(II) ions but, unlike bacteria, does not involve reactive oxygen species, which are generated from bacterial metabolism interacting with copper.”

The researchers add that inactivation of the viral infection was not as rapid on brass as had been discovered previously, but copper-nickel alloy proved very effective.

They study authors say these findings show that the use of antimicrobial surfaces containing copper in clinical and community environments, such as cruise ships and care facilities, may help to reduce the spread of the highly contagious infection.

“Man is a tactile animal who unfortunately does not wash his hands sufficiently regularly, for example after visiting the bathroom. Thus contaminated touch surfaces are an important source of spreading infection and need regular cleaning, but at best, this happens only several times a day,” they say.

“Copper is an important addition to the armenterium of hygiene measures because it works 24/7. Potential cure or treatment for norovirus would require an antiviral agent, similar to tamiflu, or vaccine – none of which are available. Therefore we have to rely on prevention rather than cure.”

They add that the next step for their research will be to extend this current study to further investigate the mode of action against norovirus. Additional studies will also be performed on the similar negative single strand RNA influenza virus to see if the kill mechanisms are similar.

Medical News Today reported on a new development in the research of norovirus earlier this year, in the form of a robot called “Vomiting Larry.” The robot was created by scientists in the UK to determine how the virus easily spreads from person to person.