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Even as a coronavirus vaccine starts rolling out, many Americans still worry about becoming sick with SARS-CoV-2, the disease known as COVID-19. Scientists and public health professionals continue to recommend wearing masks, social distancing, and sanitizing hands and surfaces – including germ-laden cell phones – to minimize the risk of catching or transmitting the virus. 

After learning that copper naturally kills bacteria, viruses, and other infectious microbes, two Evanstonians and their Vanderbilt University classmate created a cell phone case covered in copper alloy that they hope will help reduce the virus’s spread. Their fledgling company, Aeris (the Latin word for copper), pledged that for every copper phone case sold they would donate a case to frontline healthcare workers. 

Aeris has made good on that promise by donating hundreds of copper phone cases to hospitals around the country, including 250 cases to NorthShore University Health Systems.  Co-founders Isaac Lichter and Nick O’Brien, both Evanston Township High School graduates, had put NorthShore on their donation recipient list from the start.

“It’s kind of a staple of the Evanston community and it felt like an obvious place that we could give back to,” said Mr. O’Brien, whose pediatrician worked in the hospital.  “I also hit a lot of golf balls into their parking lot, so I think I owe them one.”

Giving Back to Frontline Workers

Mr. Lichter and the third Aeris co-founder, Andrew Medland, weathered bouts of COVID-19 last March shortly before graduating from Vanderbilt. While quarantining, they read that healthcare workers had to constantly disinfect their mobile phones or switch out their phone cases, which can harbor thousands of bacteria per square inch.

Their company’s one-to-one copper phone case donation program grew out of a desire to honor the Vanderbilt medical staff who cared for them and to help health professionals around the country feel a bit safer during the pandemic. 

“I think just providing additional peace of mind to people is what we’re going for,” Mr. Lichter said. “Hopefully it’s just one less thing they have to worry about during their day.”

Aeris’s first copper phone case donation went to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and the company has donated more than 1,500 phone cases to hospitals and healthcare systems in New York, New Jersey, California, South Dakota, Alabama, and Washington state. The company has also given several hundred cases to individual healthcare workers.

“When healthcare workers reach out to us directly we do our best to give them a small donation,” said Mr. O’Brien, “to make sure we’re spreading the wealth and not just targeting big hospital systems.”

Harnessing An Ancient Antibacterial

Humans have benefitted from copper’s germ-killing properties for several thousand years.  Ancient civilizations understood that copper vessels made water safer to drink; some used copper to treat wounds, headaches, and other ailments.

During the 19th century cholera outbreak, copper workers were far less likely to die from the bacterial disease.

Currently hospitals can use copper catheter lines and IV poles to help prevent infections, and some have replaced high-touch surfaces such as door handles, railings, counter tops, and patient beds with copper.

Copper Kills Coronavirus. 

In early 2020, researchers tested the survival rates of two SARS (“severe acute respiratory syndrome”) coronavirus strains on cardboard, stainless steel, plastic, and copper. The study, conducted by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Hamilton, Montana, found that copper killed SARS Cov-1, which caused the 2003 SARS epidemic, within eight hours and SARS-Cov-2 within four hours.

The viruses lasted up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel. Results of the study appeared in an editorial published in the April 16, 2020 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Perpetual Germ-Slayer.

Copper effectively explodes microbes and destroys them so completely that they cannot become resistant to copper’s sanitizing effects, explained Michael G. Schmidt, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Medical University of South Carolina.

“The microbes need to come in contact with the metal and then collectively the microbe and copper pull the pin on an oxygen grenade, killing bacteria and fungi and destroying viruses,” Dr. Schmidt explained. Even old, dirty, or tarnished copper destroys viruses and other microscopic bad guys indefinitely, he said.

Dr. Schmidt has studied copper’s killer effect on microbes for 15 years, and is especially interested in its potential to reduce or prevent hospital acquired infections, known as HAIs. Over several studies his research found that, after a typical patient stay, the amount of infectious microbes on copper surfaces in hospital rooms was the same as or lower than when those surfaces were freshly sanitized. Conversely, non-copper surfaces in patient rooms quickly accumulated thousands of microbes and required consistent daily sanitizing.   

“Copper could be and should be the next defense in medical settings to help reduce transmission of infectious microbes,” Dr. Schmidt asserts. 

A Tool for the Pandemic and Beyond.

In addition to copper cell phone cases, Aeris offers an AirPod case and a copper “touch tool” for opening doors or tapping keypads, both with the company’s proprietary copper coating, as well as a face mask with copper fabric liner. The company is developing a method for copper coating surfaces on site rather than in a factory or warehouse, a process they are also exploring with public transit systems.

“We see this as a tool that could really make a difference as we start to add more copper surfaces to our lives,” Mr. O’Brien said. 

Photo above: Aeris’s copper cell-phone case. The company, founded by two ETHS alums and a friend when they were all students at Vanderbilt University, uses copper because of its bacteria-killing properties. Submitted photo

By Meg Evans