“If 40 percent of your proteins don’t work, you don’t work,” Dr. Johnson said. Copper may even be capable of jamming up proteins that typically run metal-free by simply glomming onto their surfaces.
Even our own immune systems appear to exploit copper’s protective perks. Some evidence suggests that immune cells like macrophages — which gobble up and destroy bacteria, viruses and other microbes — may be capable of engulfing and sequestering germs in an acidic “ball of death” chamber that’s then spiked with lethal doses of copper, Dr. Johnson said. “Our bodies have been using this for warfare” long before copper masks hit the market, he added.
But it remains to be seen which of these scenarios will play out with the coronavirus, and to what extent. Dr. Johnson is one of several scientists currently on the case, tinkering with copper to suss out exactly how it exerts its apparently potent effects on this dangerous germ.
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Steer clear of the copper nose picker
What works well in the lab, however, won’t necessarily pass muster in the real world. Both Dr. Johnson and Dr. Djoko have held off on recommending copper-infused accessories, including face coverings and masks, to their friends, family and colleagues as a way to reduce transmission. (Overingesting copper is also a bad idea, and probably wouldn’t do much to boost immunity, Dr. Johnson said. And Dr. Djoko isn’t keen on the idea of sticking copper wands up your nose.)
Loosefitting face coverings, like cloth or surgical masks, aren’t air tight and don’t make the wearer impervious to infection. But if the wearer is infected, masks can do a great deal to protect others from virus-laden droplets spewed by coughs, sneezes and speech. A 2010 study found that the metal-laced accessories could curb the amount of active influenza virus lingering on contaminated masks. (The analysis was conducted by Cupron Scientific, one of several companies now selling copper-lined face coverings.)
If copper face coverings also curtail the coronavirus, that could come in handy for people who mishandle their masks, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech. A hefty dose of copper could diminish the chances of viable virus making it into the eyes, nose or mouth via a wayward hand that’s touched the front of a mask.