Can Copper Alloy Reduce the Spread of Norovirus on Cruise Ships?

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

sick cruise passengerHaving been in practice since 1971, our attorneys have fielded literally thousands of calls from passengers who have gotten a terrible stomach virus on a cruise.  So we know full well that Norovirus can be a nightmare for any cruiser. The infamous stomach bug strikes without warning and can leave victims feeling nauseated and suffering from diarrhea for at least three days. What’s worse, those who contract Norovirus on a cruise ship may even be quarantined for the remainder of their voyage to prevent the spread of this highly contagious virus.

When a cruise passenger gets sick with Norovirus, it seems the entire vessel becomes ill as well. But what if there was a way to stop an outbreak before it even begins?

A research team is studying the effects of copper alloy on Norovirus and believe the metal could hold the key to stopping the virus before it has the chance to spread. According to C. William Keevil, University of Southampton biochemist and co-author of the study, copper kills the Norovirus bacteria and has the ability to reduce the infection rate.

Keevil and his team tested out the theory by spraying a strand of Norovirus found in mice called MNVI, which closely resembles the strand associated with human infection, onto copper and stainless steel surfaces. The virus thrived on the steel surface but degenerated rapidly on the copper surface, suggesting that copper ions possibly attack the viral protein in the Norovirus that is necessary for the strand to infect and reproduce a host.

Though this new research may pave the road toward cruise ships free of Norovirus outbreaks, Keevil explains that copper has actually been used as a medicinal remedy for centuries. However, in large doses, copper can be toxic, which can prove to be a hindrance when determining a possible antiviral treatment.

What Keevil does suggest is that cruise operators incorporate copper in their designs, such as in kitchen countertops, where Norovirus can easily spread. But with cruise lines, especially luxury lines, resorting to more modern furnishings, this may be a bit of an issue.

Should the cruise industry sacrifice a little luxury for sanitation? That’s a matter for each individual line to decide, but do statistics justify the effort?

Though Norovirus can dissipate in a few days if patients are in generally good health and maintain hydrated, the virus has been known to claim the lives of young children and the elderly. Mortality rate is about 0.004 percent in the U.S., which might not be enough of an incentive for cruise lines to completely redo their ships to include copper furnishings. It would essentially be a multimillion-dollar effort, but even if the statistics would justify such an expensive retrofitting project, the cruise industry has seen its fair share of accidents on the high seas and has yet to improve passenger safety. It wouldn’t surprise our maritime lawyers here at Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A. if lines just ignore the researchers’ findings and proceed to spend their money elsewhere (i.e. bigger and better entertainment options).

It’s no surprise that the cruise industry doesn’t jump on the chance to make a passenger’s voyage safer. Despite the fact that introducing innovative safety equipment and protocols, including radar detectors that will be able to locate passengers who fall overboard or hiring lifeguards to watch over pool-goers, are relatively inexpensive compared to the potential millions a cruise line might be responsible for in a lawsuit, the industry still, it seems, prefers to take its chances.

It would make sense that an industry that prides itself on catering to its guests would actually jump at the chance to reduce the spread of such a troublesome virus, but given the frequent outbreaks of Norovirus, despite annual CDC inspections, it appears as though the industry is not going to do anything to reduce the risk of contagion anytime soon. It’s really a shame, considering that most Norovirus outbreaks result in at least 100 passengers and crew members becoming ill and losing valuable time they could have been enjoying in a port. It’s not like a cruise line will reimburse passengers who become sick with the virus for their missed itinerary portions, so, it’s once again a win-win situation for the cruise industry.

The industry won’t have to cough up the funds needed to improve passenger safety and when passengers get sick, still won’t compensate victims. In the meantime, we can only suggest that anyone considering a cruise vacation take plenty of hand sanitizer and opt for plastic utensils instead of metal ones.