17 March 2021

The nanotechnology response towards COVID-19 pandemic

By Dr Muhammad Rafiq Mirza bin Julaihi

We cannot deny the impact of COVID-19 pandemic. To date, infection and fatality rates are still on the rise. We are still unable to travel freely, meet up with others or hold big gatherings as often as we used to.

However, this is not the first time that we have faced a pandemic. For example, the world was hit by the Spanish flu pandemic in the early 20th century, infecting 500 million people with 50 million death cases. Throughout recent years, we have also seen outbreaks of diseases such as the Zika virus, SARS, and MERS-CoV to name a few.

The repercussions of COVID-19 are more damaging and widespread due to several factors such as increased mobility of people, infection method that allows the virus to spread easily by coughing and sneezing, relatively long incubation time of the virus, and virus carriers showing no symptoms (asymptomatic).

We have seen such outbreaks being discovered, mitigated and eradicated. Now, there are many mitigation methods and solutions to curb the effects of COVID-19. Did you know that the size of COVID-19 virus is measured in nanometres in magnitude? Recently, the field of nanomaterials and nanotechnology have advanced rapidly due to the pandemic. This article will look into the nanotechnological approaches towards the pandemic in three aspects namely antimicrobial surfaces, virus detection and vaccine development.

Antimicrobial surfaces

Since ancient times, copper, silver and brass were found to have antibacterial properties. Surfaces made using those elements can decompose the oils carrying microbes from our hands that come in contact with them. Those elements are used in the making of items such as door handles, knobs and cookware. However, we do not use them in hospitals and clinics because they corrode after cleaning and are relatively costly compared to stainless steel and plastics.

Current development in antimicrobial surfaces has resulted in the production of graphene sheets and titanium alloy with nanosized sharp edges feature. They are made using a physical process called hydrothermal etching, where using a combination of water, heat and pressure, minute-sized pores and spikes can be made. These surfaces cut through the membrane or outer layers of viruses and bacteria thereby killing them rapidly.

Besides that, 3D printing technology has advanced so much that we can print down to a few nanometres surface roughness. This means we could see antivirus surfaces being printed right in our homes.

In nature, we can also see this self-cleaning effect on cicada insect wings, where they repel water quickly. Their surfaces are also covered with tiny spikes on them, which prevents microbes from sticking and growing on the surface.

Virus detection

Biosensor that assists in virus detection using bodily fluids such as blood or saliva have existed due to advances in nanomaterials. Examples of nanomaterials used as biosensors are gold, graphene, and iron oxide nanoparticles (NPs).

When exposed to a specimen containing COVID-19 virus, gold NPs work by detecting receptors and nucleic acid, graphene NPs detect the spike protein antibody and iron oxide NPs detect the polyamino esters. The methods of detection are quite different, where they measure the amount of virus load that are present in the specimen by monitoring the electrical or optical change when brought to the biosensors. These sensors have the advantage of high sensitivity, accuracy and are easy to fabricate.

However, they are expensive because the fabrication requires the raw materials to be of high purity. There is also a need to further develop a universal nanomaterials-based biosensor that can detect viral infection in a variety of clinical specimen such as blood, urine, saliva, and nasal swabs.

Vaccine development

Our country has started the mass vaccination effort in the battle against COVID-19. Vaccine manufacturers such as Pfizer, Sinovac, AstraZeneca and Moderna will be available to us in the near future. Each of them has different mechanism of inducing immunization, number of doses and effectiveness percentage.

Furthermore, they are equally effective in preparing our immune system to fight the COVID-19 virus. For us Malaysians, as long as they are certified by the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency (NPRA), the vaccine is safe to be taken.

To understand why the vaccine was developed quickly, we should understand the advances in vaccine development. Compared to previous years, vaccines can be rapidly developed due to better genome sequencing and better understanding of virus infection pathways. Multiple countries working on the vaccine at the same time also contributes to the fast development.

On a side note, because of the pandemic-driven ribonucleic acid (RNA) technological progress, an effective malaria vaccine was recently developed. It is a significant achievement because half a million people die from malaria yearly. Also, this means that the knowledge and technical gains as a consequence of COVID-19 pandemic has assisted in the synthesis of vaccines for other diseases as well.


The impact of COVID-19 has been thorough and disruptive to our lives. Using a combination of new social conduct, physical protection and technology, our struggle against it is beginning to show results and we can use the lesson learnt for future applications. However, for our own safety and others around us, we will have to live our lives under a new norm.

Dr Muhammad Rafiq Mirza bin Julaihi is a lecturer from the Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Science at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be reached via email at mjulaihi@swinburne.edu.my.