Coronaviruses are positive-stranded RNA viruses, with a genome consisting of major structural proteins in the 5’ to 3’ order, including spike (S), envelope (E), membrane (M) and nucleocapsid (N) proteins (1, 2). Seasonal coronaviruses, HCoV-NL63, HKU1, HCoV-229E and OC43 are a common cause of paediatric respiratory infections (2–4). In the last two decades, various pandemic coronaviruses have emerged, including SARS-CoV in 2002 (10% mortality rate) and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in 2012 (37% mortality rate), and have caused wide-spread infection and death, amongst both children and adults (5, 6).
The emergence and rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease known as COVID-19, has caused global social, economic, tourism and healthcare devastation since its detection in late 2019 (7). To contain the spread, governments have imposed city and nation-wide lockdowns, closed both domestic and international borders, implemented mask-wearing mandates and imposed quarantine measures on international and domestic arrivals. While multiple vaccines have been developed to minimize the risk of severe infection and hospitalisation of COVID-19, there are currently no specific antiviral preventative or curative treatments for coronavirus infections (6, 8). Therefore, engineering surface and aerosol transmission controls remain an essential part of controlling infection spread. In addition, beyond the current crisis, it can be expected that new viruses will emerge with pandemic potential that will require rapid surface inactivation to control transmission.
Studies show that SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted through a number of avenues (9), with surface transmission responsible for approximately 25% of deaths in lockdown (10). Surface transmission is caused when infected respiratory droplets (between 5 – 10 µm) and aerosols, generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes (11–13), land on and contaminate a surface or inanimate object (14). Subsequent users then contact that surface, transferring the virus to their hands, where infection can occur after touching their eyes, nose or mouth. Studies suggest that transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and seasonal coronaviruses, such as HCoV-NL63, is due to their ability to survive and remain infectious on different surfaces for long periods of time at room temperature (2, 15, 16). For example, SARS-CoV-2 can remain infectious on stainless steel for 3 – 4 days (17) and on smooth surfaces for 7 days (18). SARS-CoV-2 RNA has been detected in hospital rooms, with the most contaminated surfaces found to be the floor, electrical switches, chairs, and toilet seats and flush buttons (19). Recommended disinfection methods for surfaces include ethanol, bleach and peroxide, however these methods do not provide on-going protection (11), and given the rapid evaporation of alcohol-based solutions, surfaces can become reinfected within minutes. In addition, constant cleaning and disinfection can be expensive and time-consuming.
Recent advances in nanotechnology, namely nanomaterials and nanoparticles offer potential solutions for surface transmission. Some nanomaterials can be used to capture and inactivate or inhibit the replication or entry of the virus into human cells thus preventing infection (5). Some antiviral agents such as copper, silver nanoparticles, nanocarbons, zinc and polyethyleneimine are used in personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks, immunodiagnostic assays, drug administration and vaccines (5, 8, 20–24).
This work investigates the antiviral properties of previously established antibacterial TiO2 nanostructured surfaces (25–29) against human coronaviruses SARS-CoV-2 and HCoV-NL63, as a method of viral inactivation. The aim of this study is to develop inherently antiviral surfaces which deactivate coronavirus particles without the need for chemical disinfectants. This research is a step towards installation and implementation of these surfaces in high traffic or highly touched areas to reduce the transmission and infection of coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV-2 through communities.