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TAMPA — Someone said on Twitter the other day, "Floridians, you cannot shoot the coronavirus.”
Okay, but can you stab it?
Odd as it might sound, that’s the approach — scaled down to the molecular level — being taken by Port Tampa Bay and one of its vendors, mPact Environmental Solutions, based near Greenville, S.C.
“That’s exactly what we’re doing,” mPact senior vice president for communications Justin Evans said Tuesday.
When mPact’s antimicrobial treatment, known as mPale, is applied to a disinfected surface and is allowed to dry, the company says, it leaves a thin film of molecules that have a unique spiked structure and a positive electrical charge. Those microscopic spikes do two things, mPact says.
First, they bond with virtually any surface, though they are much too small to be seen or felt by human touch. Second, they attract bacteria, viruses, mold and fungi, which carry an opposite negative charge, into physical contact. On contact, the spikes punch through the cell walls of the microbes.
“It punctures the membrane," Evans said. "It does not allow it to attach to a host. It does not allow it to propagate. It’s thinking about disinfection in a different way.”
The port will pay mPact up to $22,500 to help disinfect its three cruise ship terminals, which, in the last couple of years, have welcomed 1 million cruise passengers per year.
“This new process complements several other cleaning and sanitation efforts, including deep cleaning of each of our cruise terminals after each and every cruise,” Port Tampa Bay president and chief executive officer Paul Anderson said.
Those cleanings put a particular emphasis on high-touch areas like door knobs, counter tops, elevator buttons and escalator hand rails. The port also is making more hand sanitizer available for passengers at the terminals.
Among other things, mPact says its products kill and inhibit the regrowth of:
• Bacteria that include e. coli, and a couple of types each of salmonella, streptococcus and staphylococcus, including methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.
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• Fungi that cause ringworm and athlete’s foot. (Some of mPact best-known clients are college and professional sports teams.) The company says it also kills and prevents the growth of new molds or mildews.
• Viruses that include the common flu virus, the herpes virus that causes fever blisters, the adenovirus that causes upper respiratory infections, HIV, hepatitis B and C, norovirus, rabies, canine parvovirus, rotavirus, and three types of coronavirus: a coronavirus associated with severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, a second strain known as 229E, and the new coronavirus.
“It’s absolutely safe,” Evans said. “It stays on for 30 days at the nano level. You can’t see it. You can’t feel it. It’s not something you can touch, but it continues to kill for 30 days. ... It’s a very effective disinfectant."
Three weeks ago, mPact sent its product to a German lab, which Evans said determined that it’s effective in eliminating 99.99 percent of the new coronavirus, known as COVID-19, which is short for “coronavirus disease 2019.”
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in people and many animals, including cattle, cats and bats, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The new COVID-19 coronavirus has spread to more than 100 locations worldwide after first being detected last year in China.
During the 30 days between applications, surfaces can be wiped down or cleaned with other disinfectants without removing the mPale product. And because the treatment kills germs mechanically rather than chemically, the company says microbes do not have the chance to develop into “super bugs” that are immune to mPact.
"We’re talking about curbing and preventing surface-to-human transmissions,” Evans said. “We’re not going to tell you that it’s going to prevent somebody from sneezing or coughing on somebody.”
The company’s products are not on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency list of antimicrobial products for use against the new coronavirus, but Evans said the company was on a call Monday with the U.S. Commerce Department, which he said was interested in getting the company in touch with a coronavirus task force that includes EPA officials.
Without knowing more about mPact’s active ingredient or testing, it’s hard to speak in much detail about the product, said John Lednicky, an associate professor and expert on respiratory pathogens at the College of Public Health and Health Professions at the University of Florida.
That said, “chances are if it’s been tested against SARS coronavirus and it’s applied properly, it should work,” he said.
While the Centers for Disease Control has warned travelers against taking cruises if they have heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes or other conditions that suppress the immune system, the coronavirus health crisis has not appeared to have impacted the port’s business.
The port had one cruise ship pass through on Saturday, two more on Sunday and one on Monday.
“Based on our parking lots they’re pretty full, and we have not any indication as yet that this has impacted their business,” Anderson said.
The port is working with federal, state and local officials, as well as with the cruise lines, on protocols to follow if someone aboard a cruise ship is determined to be infected with the new coronavirus.
“Hypothetically, we have a place for a ship to be quarantined, both at sea and here at the port,” Anderson said.
But he said, "this isn’t a time to panic. We are all paying very close attention. ... We need to use good common sense. ... If I’m a cruise passenger and I’m not 80 years old or older with some of the conditions that the CDC has outlined very clearly, I wouldn’t have any problem with being on a cruise.”