As global makers of household cleaners race to pitch their products as coronavirus killers, one major company, Reckitt Benckiser, may have a leg up on the competition.
The maker of Lysol and Dettol disinfectants said it has already obtained a strain of the novel coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, from an independent lab and plans to use the strain to test whether its products kill the virus.
Watchdogs in the United States and Europe stipulate that a product must be tested in a regulator-approved lab to prove it can be effective against 99.9% of a virus before it can make a virus-killing claim on its label or in ads. In 2012, for instance, when MERS-coronavirus was a major public health concern, cleaning products had to prove they could kill 9,999 out of 10,000 MERS-Coronavirus cells, according to the agencies' requirement.
COVID-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus, originated in Wuhan, China, and has spread to more than 100 countries across the world.
The pandemic presents both a challenge and an opportunity for marketers of household brands to show how their products can help consumers deal with a frightening and fast-developing public health crisis. Doing it right could mean added market share; doing it badly will likely have other consequences.
"This coronavirus is the new hype," said Michael Reynen, the former research head of Procter & Gamble's surface care business in parts of Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
British consumer goods maker Reckitt told Reuters it procured a sample of the novel coronavirus strain a few days ago and will soon be testing its existing disinfectants for commercial use at a virology lab.
The lab, which Reckitt declined to name, is in the process of duplicating the virus samples to enable sufficient quantities for testing, it said. The lab can test six Reckitt Benckiser products per week, with results of the first batch expected by the end of April, the company said.
Before Reckitt can re-label and stock shelves with its Dettol disinfecting sprays and Lysol toilet cleaners, it must complete a battery of regulator-mandated tests that typically take at least six months. It could take over a year if they need to create entirely new coronavirus-killing products.
Reckitt's move, which Reuters could not independently verify, could put some of its rivals on the back foot.
At stake are potentially billions of dollars in sales. Consumers spent nearly $22 billion (17.4 billion pounds) on surface cleaners globally and another $1.43 billion on cleaning wipes in 2019. Clorox has about 4% percent and 37% percent of the surface cleaner and disinfecting wipes categories, respectively, followed by Reckitt, with share of 7.3% and 17.2%.
During public health emergencies, such as 'Bird flu,' the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 and the 2013 MERS crisis, demand for surface cleaners and disinfecting wipes typically spikes, a Reuters analysis of Euromonitor data shows.
Reynen, who held several top research roles in his 24 years at P&G, said companies can spend a few thousand dollars to buy aggressive virus strains like the novel coronavirus from regulator-approved microbiology laboratories, which mail the samples with a glycerin solution in small, deep-frozen vessels.
"Procter and Clorox will be rushing around to get a strain," he said. "If they don't have it in their labs by now, I'd expect they will in the next week or two."
P&G, Clorox (CLX.N) and Unilever declined to comment on whether they're pursuing or have managed to get samples of the novel coronavirus.
The companies likely do not have labs sophisticated enough to complete the rigorous six-month testing for a virus as nasty as this, so they outsource most of the work to external labs approved by regulators, a process that could cost about $100,000-$200,000, Reynen said. The contracted labs typically work with top biomedical research organizations such as the private non-profit Institut Pasteur in Paris and the German government agency Robert Koch-Institut in Berlin.
As deaths and illnesses from the novel coronavirus mount, companies are resorting to the most powerful claims they can make. The U.S. EPA and European Chemicals Agency do allow for certain carefully-worded statements even in the absence of testing against a strain of the novel coronavirus.
For example, Lysol, P&G and Clorox recently created websites promoting awareness, claiming some of their disinfectant products "demonstrated effectiveness against viruses similar to 2019 Novel Coronavirus" and "can be used" against coronavirus on certain surfaces. P&G also put out a new line of sanitising products called Microban 24 in late February with TV ads touting they were better than rival Lysol, but the company said the launch was not connected to the coronavirus outbreak.
Retail sales for Lysol wipes and rival Clorox wipes rose 184% in the week ended Feb. 29 versus last year, according to data firm Bloomreach. At the same time, shares of Reckitt, P&G and Clorox have outperformed the broader market, which has plunged since the first case of Coronavirus was detected in China on Dec. 31.