Researchers should immediately start looking for viable coronavirus-free packaging materials. © Pixabay

As India mulls over performance-based relaxation of the lockdown in danger-free zones, resuming economic activity will hugely depend upon local and global delivery of raw materials, intermediates and finished products. One of India’s largest employers – the small and medium enterprises hit hard by the lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus – are now looking to the country’s research community for solutions in coronavirus-free packaging.

From local delivery of masala dosa to inter-continental shipping of airplane parts, safe packaging is a key requirement across industries and businesses. The unique challenge – can the packaging be trusted – might slow down the return of free trade. A SARS-CoV-2 resilient packaging material that is cheap and scalable could be a game-changing silver bullet for the country’s flow of goods.

Around the world, restaurant orders have dropped as people are worried about surface SARS-CoV-2 contamination of packaging materials. This fear might extend to global shipments as well, especially from developing countries, as studies indicate that the virus may stay on surfaces from 3 to 9 days. This is where packaging and material technology comes into play.

Studies indicate that the novel coronavirus is most stable on plastic and stainless steel. Unfortunately, most packaging involves some kind of plastic material and shipping containers are made of a variety of stainless steel called ‘corten steel’. Evidence also suggests that the virus does not survive long on copper, as copper ions kill the microbes landing on the surface. The ions prevent cell respiration, disrupt the viral coat and destroy the genetic material inside. This latter property is important as it means that no mutation can prevent the microbe from developing resistance to copper.

Copper foils could replace aluminum foils for food wrappings, as large scale copper foil manufacturing is a mature industry. The global hunt for a similar super-material has been inadequate. “We are looking at advanced anti-viral coatings, especially for personal protective equipment of frontline health-workers, as they risk infection while de-robing from PPEs,” says Aravind Kumar Chandiran, an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras and a former materials scientist at University of Calfornia, Berkeley. Such solutions, if adapted for scaled delivery, could help make spray coatings for shipping containers resilient to super-bugs like SARS-CoV-2.

To begin testing for coronavirus-free packaging materials, researchers should immediately evaluate a wide variety of permutations and combinations to arrive at viable candidates. The testing method (half-life) is simple and inexpensive, though availability of viral strains may be a bottleneck. The knowledge of properties needed for an anti-SARS-CoV-2 material, however, is robust and should help narrow down the candidates. “Lessons from food packaging studies, such as understanding the relationship between size of pores on surfaces and the survival of the virus might prove crucial in designing a packaging material of the future”, says Naveenkumar Balakrishnan, an advanced bio-materials researcher at the Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

Zinc oxide is a well explored antiviral material, known to inhibit viral activity, including that of H1N1 influenza. “However, little has been explored in coating these materials on existing packaging systems,” Chandiran says. To use this low cost material, the researchers should explore the possibility of making robust thin film coatings on various packaging materials, and their ability to disinfect pathogens under varied temperatures and humidity conditions.

Besides research, standards also need to be in place for packaging shipments so that the potential spread of any virus or disease causing pathogens can be checked, he says. “Specifically, the time taken by the antiviral coating to disinfect the pathogens and stability of the coating under different environments should be standardised immediately,” Chandiran says.

Many industrial facilities across the world are gradually resuming operations. Automobile majors Toyota, Renault, Hyundai, Volkswagen, and Volvo are among those that have opened or are preparing to restart production in Europe. India is an integral part of the global value chains (GVCs) of international production sharing, a process where production is broken into activities carried out in different countries. A UN estimate suggests that GVCs governed by trans-national corporations (TNCs) account for 80 per cent of world trade each year, underscoring the length and breadth of a truly globalised supply chain ecosystem, which relies on safe packaging.

Post-pandemic packaging

Reclaiming the trust of global consumers requires more than just technology interventions. Imagine a scenario where a “Corona Free” certification for products is the recommended best practice by the World Health Organization (WHO) and goods are mandated to be packed with SARS-CoV-2 resilient material to qualify for the certification, alongside shipping containers, which must either be covered in a special material or sanitised using robotic UV decontamination. “Corona Free” labels in product packaging would result in greater trust among consumers.

According to US-based trade finance company Drip Capital, the Christmas/Holiday season in the US and the European Union has historically driven demand Indian exports. A weak rupee against the dollar could very well give a short boost to Indian exports, once global trade gets back on track. India is a leading exporter in agricultural and other essential commodities such as pharmaceuticals, which will be in demand during and in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Saurabh Mukherjea of Marcellus Investments Managers, in his recent blog , correlates a fall in global oil prices, lower yields of the US government’s 10-year bonds and a simultaneous contraction in the US economy. These instances have traditionally been followed by a strong economic recovery in India. Based on Mukherjea’s analysis, there is still hope for a recovery for Indian exports in the coming months. This needs all-encompassing and aggressive measures to convert an adversity into an opportunity, where all gaps are plugged through either technological or structural interventions.

The biggest ever healthcare challenge for humanity necessitates an ambitious roll-out of SARS-CoV-2 resilient packaging to save industries and help them thrive.

[*The author is a Young Professional in the Energy and International Co-operation vertical of NITI Aayog, a policy think-tank of the Indian government.]

Nature India's latest coverage on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic here. More updates on the global crisis here.