Anti-viral technologies can reduce pathogen transmission in the greenhouse

Three new anti-viral technologies could help prevent the transmission of both COVID-19 and an economically significant plant virus affecting tomatoes inside commercial greenhouses. That’s according to a recent Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers (OGVG) research project to refine and apply technologies used in other industries to greenhouses in order to test their effectiveness at inhibiting virus transmission. The project included three approaches developed by service provider PRODIGie – Innovation Evolved Inc.


For the last several years, Ontario’s greenhouse vegetable growers have been dealing with COVID-19 as well as Tomato Brown Rugose Fruit Virus (ToBRFV), which was first detected in Ontario in 2019. ToBRFV causes mosaic and distortion of leaves, as well as brown, wrinkly spots on the fruit, making them unmarketable.

A big challenge for growers is that ToBRFV can survive for long periods on surfaces away from tomato plants and can be easily picked up by people, tools and equipment – increasing the chance of infection and spread through the greenhouse. COVID-19 has been a leading threat to human health, food security and business continuity since it emerged on the global stage early in 2020.

With both pathogens, time was of the essence to keep spread and impact to a minimum, leaving the industry searching for quick solutions. Funding from the Greenhouse Competitiveness and Innovation Initiative (GCII) helped OGVG test the suitability of various anti-viral technologies as possible tools to control the spread of both pathogens.

“The rugose virus appeared almost in tandem with COVID and commonly used disinfection tools like rubbing alcohol, for example, don’t work on either of these viruses,” explains Niki Bennett, OGVG’s Innovation, Adaptation and Plant Protection Lead. “Biosecurity is about keeping things out and preventing transmission and this project gave us a unique opportunity to go after both pathogens.”

The first anti-viral technology tested, Novel Composite Cold Spray Coatings, can be applied to static objects like door handles and other high touch areas. According to Bennett, it performs like a barrier, preventing microbial adhesion to surfaces and offers some antimicrobial activity, which can be used to protect against many different viral pathogens. As well, since it’s not a chemical and not being applied to plants, it does not have to go through a regulatory approval process to be approved for sale.


These studies demonstrated up to a 97% reduction in ToBRFV on surfaces where the Cold Spray Coatings were applied. This was a ten-fold increase in effectiveness compared to current copper benchmarks.  


“We don’t know of anyone doing this; that’s what sparked our interest in this solution,” Bennett says. “It’s a barrier method that provides passive, preventative protection.”

The second technology that was evaluated was a non-alcohol oil-based hand rub with antimicrobial properties. It can inactivate pathogens on the hand and also does not need regulatory approval since it is considered a personal care product.

Currently, many greenhouse workers use nitrile gloves to minimize risk of spread of ToBRFV, but the virus could still adhere to the gloves so changing them often is critical. This hand rub has potential to provide longer protection and reduce the overall spread by workers hands.

The third solution that was tested was an ozone treatment that contains very powerful oxidizers that can kill micro-organisms or inactivate viruses when applied to surfaces. There was a 98% reduction in ToBRFV after three minutes of contact with aqueous ozone, which is a shorter contact time than what is necessary for many commercially available disinfectants. Although efficacious, work is still underway to determine the best and most critical uses for this product.

All three solutions, which can be used together or separately, have a good chance of being adopted by the industry, notes Bennett. The next step is determining how they can be best commercialized. There has been initial interest by growers, but grower trials are needed to validate that interest.

“We have some pretty unique techniques here that we haven’t seen anyone else using in the greenhouse industry – and they could help us with future issues too, not just the issues of today like COVID and rugose,” she says. “They challenge the traditional way of addressing viral and bacterial issues, which is usually reactive, and move us into the proactive and preventative space. That’s where the cost savings are, in reducing disease transmission and keeping people and plants healthy.”

For OGVG, the ultimate goal is to make the sector more resilient to pathogen threats to both its workforce and its crops, and keep growers competitive and productive. According to Bennett, achieving that will mean changing the crop protection strategies from reactive to proactive and looking for solutions that are effective yet don’t require lengthy regulatory approval processes.

This project was supported through the Greenhouse Competitiveness and Innovation Initiative, a cost-share program funded by the Ontario government and delivered by the Agricultural Adaptation Council, on behalf of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).

“Innovation and adaptability are key strengths demonstrated by Ontario’s greenhouse growers,” says Lisa Thompson, Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. “Through the Greenhouse Competitiveness and Innovation Initiative, our government is helping greenhouse growers find sustainable methods to make their operations more efficient, protect our environment and help keep our sector resilient so our growers are able to respond to any challenges with versatility, and preparedness.” 

“The GCII funding was incredibly important and a really unique opportunity for us because the funding focused on plant health and COVID-19,” adds Bennett. “It’s not often that you can access both and have benefits to both, and it makes it much easier to look for solutions knowing that funding is available to help.”