Dr. Copper Turns Bug-Killer as Hospitals Seen Boosting Demand

Updated on
  • Hospitals present new opportunity for copper: Bernstein
  • Microbial uses could add 1 million tons of demand: analyst

Copper has long been touted as the metal with a Ph.D in economics, given its ability to monitor global manufacturing and industrial activity. A lesser-known fact about the metal is its effectiveness in fighting hospital infections.

With a growing number of hospitals around the world turning to copper for use on surfaces to help control the spread of superbugs resistant to conventional antibiotics, there’s now another reason to refer to the metal as Doctor Copper.

As the threat posed by superbugs grows, increasing awareness of copper’s antimicrobial qualities could open up a significant new source of demand in coming years, Sanford C. Bernstein Ltd. wrote in a note on Wednesday. Ultimately, annual demand from bug-killing applications could represent about 5 percent of global mine supply at current levels, Bernstein said.

According to a 2011 paper published in the ‘Applied and Environmental Microbiology’ journal copper surfaces kill microbes on contact and have the ability to decimate their populations within minutes.

Copper and copper alloys have been registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as antimicrobial products that kill pathogenic organisms, making them the only class of solid materials with such a registration.

Global copper demand could be boosted by as much 1 million tons per year over the next 20 years if copper is deployed to fight infections in the home and public spaces likes schools, supermarkets and gyms, according to Bernstein. Miners may struggle to bring new supply on quickly enough to fill the gap, analyst Paul Gait said by phone from London.

“What I hope this does is raises people’s awareness of just how dependent the modern industrial economy is on the mining industry for its ultimate well-being,” he said.

Hospital Infections

The use of copper on surfaces could stem the growing number of infections acquired in hospitals, helping to combat the rising threat of super-bugs to public finances, Bernstein said.

In the U.S., the Center for Disease Control estimates that 2 million people are sickened every year with antibiotic-resistant infections with at least 23,000 dying as a result. By 2050, antimicrobial resistance could cause 10 million deaths a year, at a cost of $100 trillion, according to research from the Wellcome Trust and the U.K. government.

Wider usage in health care applications won’t cause a demand shock for the metal on its own, but, as with electric vehicles, it presents another new area of consumption in a market that’s heading into deficit, Bernstein predicts.

“Given that the supply-demand balance in any given year is a few hundred thousand tons, this adds yet more pressure to the copper market and highlights once again the value of scarce resources,” Bernstein’s Gait said. “You’ve got a market that balances on a hairs-width at the best of times.”

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