How paper is helping to fight Covid-19

In ancient China, people really understood the versatility of paper. It was, of course, valued as a way of recording information – there are around 30 million volumes of books written or printed before 1795 preserved in various libraries around the country to this day.

But paper was used for so much more than this. There were paper hats, sheets, umbrellas, belts, shoes, curtains, mattresses, windows – and even armour. The Southern Tang empire clad themselves in paper which was said to be able to withstand heavy arrows, and formed menacing “White Armour Armies”. Several tribes in southern and south-west China continued to use protective clothing made from bark paper until the late 19th Century.

Fast-forward to today and the paper industry has, like many others, been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. In April this year, paper production was completely suspended at several paper mills in Europe, and the market is forecast to shrink from $896.6bn (£703.8bn) in 2019 to $868.8bn (£681.9bn) in 2020.

But once again, its malleability is likely to come in handy. The industry is expected to bounce back in 2021, and by 2023, it’s predicted to reach new heights of $1,031bn (£809.7bn). Here’s how that might happen.

Paper has been central to the story of the Covid-19 pandemic right from the beginning.

In March, the world was gripped by the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020, as people rushed to stockpile this bathroom staple. From Hong Kong to Essex, gangs of organised criminals, dubbed “bog roll bandits” by news media, attempted heists to get hold of this suddenly valuable commodity. Radio stations and arcades gave out toilet rolls as prizes. As demand hit its peak, one “dealer” in Australia started selling individual rolls for $100 (£78.6) each on eBay.

rld, people hoarded toilet roll during the start of the pandemic (Credit: Getty Images)

In reality, there was never a true scarcity – especially since many countries, such as the US, are self-sufficient in this product. It’s not clear exactly why the mass hysteria took hold, but in Australia, it began after the nation’s first confirmed death from Covid-19, while in Hong Kong, it is thought to have been started by online rumours about the supply chain. The panic eventually subsided when the supply of toilet roll caught up with the temporary surge in demand.

Incredibly, the world had been there before. On the 19 December 1973, the American television host Johnny Carson joked to his audience: “You know, we’ve got all sorts of shortages these days… But have you heard the latest? I’m not kidding. I saw it in the paper. There’s a shortage of toilet paper.”

And thus began a mad rush to hunt down every last toilet roll in the land. As with the most recent incident, there was no shortage of paper, and the whole thing was a misunderstanding, stemming from a news release by a Wisconsin politician.

To nobody’s surprise, today the tissue market is booming. Demand for toilet paper, tissues and paper towels has been growing for years, and early on in the pandemic one expert analysis speculated that Covid-19 might have triggered a more long-term trend for hoarding toilet paper, which would ultimately increase the amount that’s sold.

As an added bonus, many companies are now branching out into medical tissue papers. Surgical face masks and gowns are often made of paper, and many companies have temporarily switched from making other products to meet the demand for PPE. Even in ordinary times, healthcare institutions get through astonishing quantities of disposable paper – in the US, this amounts to nearly two billion pounds (907,000 tonnes) of paper and cardboard waste every year.

But there’s another, more surprising medical use for paper: rapid tests. One of the material’s special properties is that it lends itself to “capillary action”, which means that a liquid that starts at one end will eventually move across to the other, without any active help. For example, a popular classroom experiment is to dip strips of paper towel in coloured water, and watch as the dye seemingly defies gravity to climb up them.

In a typical rapid test, capillary action is used to transport a liquid – such as blood – across a paper strip, which is embedded with molecules, called antigens, that can bind to a target to make it visible. For example, the antigens might bind to viral particles, and give them a fluorescent glow or lead to the development of a dark band on the test strip.

The system is widely used for many routine tests, such as to detect pregnancy, urinary tract infections, HIV, and toxins in drinking water. And there are already rapid tests out there that use paper to identify if a person has developed antibodies to Covid-19, which have been helping scientists to track the progress of the pandemic.

Politicians hope these rapid tests could help to get entire economies back on track. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration recently granted approval for a new paper-based testing device the size of a credit card, which works by detecting specific proteins on the surface of Covid-19 virus itself, and can provide a result in just 15 minutes. The nation is spending $760m (£597m) on the tests, which are 95-100% accurate as long as they’re used within the first week of infection.

Similarly, as part of the UK’s Prime Minister’s “Operation Moonshot” – a plan to process up to 10 million Covid-19 tests a day by early 2021 – would be equivalent to testing the entire UK population around once a week. Among the technologies the plan relies on are rapid, paper-based tests. If it is successful, paper looks set to play a surprisingly major role in the Covid-19 pandemic.

Another promising avenue for the industry is antimicrobial paper.

“We’ve adapted by being flexible with our production in line with demand, and by introducing new products to meet emerging demands,” says Richard Bracewell, marketing director at the paper company James Cropper. One such product is PaperGard – paper which is embedded with antimicrobial silver ions, which can bind to cells or genetic material to stop bacteria and viruses from being able to make copies of themselves.

Previously, the technology was mostly used for the production of medical and healthcare documents, to help prevent the spread of pathogens such as MRSA. But the company recently tested the technology on a feline coronavirus, and it’s been found to be able to reduce the viability of viral particles by over 95% in just two hours. The company is now selling the paper for use in any context where an item might be handled regularly, such as packaging or greeting cards.

Equally, food hygiene has become more of a concern. Vegware, which makes food packaging that can be composted along with food waste – it fully biodegrades in under 12 weeks in industrial facilities – has seen a shift away from customers wanting to reach into a pot of loose cutlery, straws or stirrers, for obvious reasons. Meanwhile, schools have started to provide lunch boxes so that students don’t need to eat all together in a canteen.

Joe Frankel, chief executive and founder of Vegware, explains that even sit-in restaurants are using more disposable packaging, to minimise the amount of handling by staff. To meet these needs, they’ve pioneered wrapped kits of wooden cutlery, as well as new kinds of trays and boxes. “We see these concerns lasting for the next few years at least, and society’s demand for a green recovery is stronger than ever,” he says.

Of course, some aspects of paper production have taken more of a hit.

“We supply a lot of paper that ends up in hotels, so we’ve seen a drop in sales,” says Nick Bizzell, the director of London-based Bizzell Paper. To cope, the company has had to slash their overheads, including letting staff go and selling vehicles, but Bizzell is still optimistic.

“If things improve then I would expect for us to get back to normal,” says Bizzell. “It’s more the lockdowns that have affected us than the economy, because hotels had to close. Generally, until the pandemic, business had been very good.” He points out that demand for certain types of paper, such as the A4 kind used in offices, has been shrinking for decades, after losing the battle against computers. But overall the paper industry is growing.

Then there’s art. After months of lockdowns and disruption to the social calendar, practical hobbies such as DIY, crafts, art and baking have recently experienced a renaissance.