A new fast-acting disinfectant that is effective against bacteria, viruses and other germs could help stop the spread of deadly infections in hospitals, German scientists said on Wednesday.

Researchers from the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin said they had developed a fast-acting, practical formula which would kill germs on surgical instruments without damaging them through corrosion.

Disinfectants are the first line of defence against the spread of hospital-acquired infections and effective cleaning of surgical instruments is vital to beating them.

The German formula works against a wide range of germs, including some that survive ordinary disinfectants, such as Mycobacterium avium bacteria which can cause a tuberculosis-type illness and enteroviruses that may cause polio.

Drug-resistant bacteria, the so-called "superbugs", are a growing problem in hospitals worldwide and poor hygiene among staff is often blamed for the spread of such infections.

They kill about 25,000 people a year in Europe and about 19,000 in the United States.

In previous studies, the German team found a simple alkaline detergent that could eradicate prions — disease-causing proteins that are particularly hard to get rid of because they can become fixed onto surfaces through the use of some conventional disinfectants.

In their new study, Michael Beekes and Martin Mielke from the Institute's hygiene department mixed the alkaline with varying amounts of alcohol and tested its ability to rid surgical instruments of bacteria, viruses and fungi and prions. They found that a mixture with 20 percent alcohol was best.

Beekes said he thought the new disinfectant could have a huge impact on hospital safety protocols.

"Standard formulations that eliminate prions are very corrosive," he said in the study published in the Journal of General Virology.

"The solution we've come up with is not only safer and more material-friendly, but easy to prepare, cheap and highly effective against a wide variety of infectious agents."

A Dutch study published last week found that the methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) superbug, which can cause blood poisoning, spreads not freely but in clusters, suggesting it is spread through healthcare systems by patients being repeatedly admitted to different hospitals.