Is cash safe to use?
While the general advice from WHO about protecting yourself from COVID-19 is clear (eg. wash your hand, keep your distance, avoid touching your face etc), their advice about cash is not. Reports that they advised against using physical banknotes and coins due to the coronavirus surviving on these were quickly picked up by the media and themselves went ‘viral’.
WHO subsequently issued a statement saying that they have not advocated avoiding cash (‘we did NOT say that cash was transmitting COVID-19’), but rather suggested that contactless payments may be ‘a good idea’, and the risk posed by handling a banknote is no greater than touching any other common surface. Even so, the original story has done its damage.
Both the WHO and the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention state that the main way that the COVID-19 spreads is by people-to-people contact and through droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
The head of Germany’s Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases, agrees that banknotes DO NOT play a significant role in the spread of the coronavirus. The risk of banknotes spreading the coronavirus is small ‘unless someone is using a banknote to sneeze in’ says Dr Christine Tait-Burkard, an expert in infection and immunity at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh.
The US Center for Disease Control said, ‘it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.’
There is a lot of research into how the COVID-19 virus survives on different surfaces, but it’s not just cash payments that potentially carry a risk. Using PIN keypads for card payments might be an even more direct way of transmitting the virus. As is touching frequently handled objects such as door handles, petrol pump handles, shopping trolleys, handrails, water taps and light switches.
What are central banks saying?
A number of central banks have made clear statements that banknotes are low risk when it comes to spreading COVID-19.
The Executive Board Member of the Bundesbank, Johannes Beermann, said on 18th March, ‘…the probability of becoming ill from handling cash is smaller than from many other objects used in everyday life’.
In the same press briefing, René Gottschalk, infectiologist and head of the Frankfurt am Main Health Office, explained that what is decisive is whether there is an infection channel. ‘COVID-19 is mainly spread by infected droplets transmitted by coughing, sneezing or also talking.’ He did not regard banknotes as providing an infection channel since the physical properties mean banknotes do not particularly lend themselves to transmitting pathogens.
The Bank of Canada and the Bank of England have made statements that almost used the same words, saying the risk of getting COVID-19, ‘…by handling a polymer note is no greater than touching any other common surface, such as handrails, doorknobs or credit cards.’
The Banque de France has said there is ‘no evidence that the COVID-19 was or could be spread by banknotes.’ The Oesterreichische Nationalbank, Reserve Bank of New Zealand and the South African Reserve Bank are among several others that have also made similar statements.
How are central banks treating banknotes?
At the same time as saying cash is safe to use, some central banks have also publicised what they are doing to safeguard banknotes against spreading COVID-19.
The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has taken a number of steps such as quarantining of returned banknotes before reissuing them, increasing the issue of new notes and disinfecting areas where cash is handled, and these have been implemented elsewhere (for example, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Iran, Russia, South Korea and Thailand).
Some banks have focused on removing more notes from circulation and putting into circulation only new ones, others such as the Federal Reserve are quarantining repatriated banknotes.
The logic behind central bank decisions to disinfect banknotes, only issue new notes or move to more wipeable polymer or varnished banknotes, is a concern over how long any virus will stay on a banknote.
Stephanie Brickman from the WHO said, ‘we do not know (how long the virus lasts on banknotes), but we estimate not longer than two hours. The virus will not survive for very long on surfaces, particularly on a dry surface like a banknote.’
De La Rue research during the H5N1 flu in 2006 suggested that as little as 10 % of COVID-19es (with feline COVID-19’s being specifically tested) were still present after four hours. This research concluded that overnight storage was likely to be adequate to ensure that the virus was no longer present. Other studies, that are relevant but not directly translatable to banknotes, suggest between hours and days.
Can the industry help?
As described elsewhere in this issue, Oberthur Fiduciaire have brought out a new anti-viral substrate, Bioguard Enhance. There are claims of other substrates out there too – from Goznak and Intace for example, while Inovink is about to launch an anti-microbial additive for banknote varnish and substrates called BioNote®.
Whether or not there is a need for such substrates given the lack of evidence and consensus that viruses survive for any significant length of time on banknotes is beside the point; the ability to address such concerns, legitimate or otherwise, with a tailor-made solution could be key to helping regain trust in banknotes.
A detailed analysis of the various industry technique and products to help fight COVID-19, or fears of COVID-19, will be the topic of a special report to be distributed with the next issue of Currency News.