As has been well documented, sensational and alarmist claims in the media at the outset of the pandemic that handling cash transfers COVID has done long term and potentially irreparable damage to public confidence.
Many central banks were quick to reassure the public that cash is safe, backed up in some cases (such as the ECB) by in-depth scientific studies. But at the same time, other central banks were taking measures to quarantine and disinfect banknotes, and/or advise citizens to use cashless payment means. One company, Oberthur Fiduciaire, was quick off the mark with the launch of an enhanced version of its Bioguard™ biocidal and virucidal solution, which offers specific protection against the presence of most common bacteria, fungi and viruses on banknotes.
All of which has begged the question – is cash safe (as the ECB and other central banks and some scientists say it is) or isn’t it (as actions by other central banks, several scientific studies over past decades and indeed the development of dedicated antiseptic solution that protects against the germs would indicate)?
According to Etienne Couëlle, Managing Director of Oberthur Fiducuiare, who gave the industry an update on Bioguard at the Banknote & Currency Conference, not only is there serious scientific evidence suggesting that banknote anti-biocidal protection should and could be improved, but the perception of the general public is such that our entire industry should consider acting preventively.
Irrespective of reassurances that banknotes are safe, people voted with their feet, turning away from cash in droves. In a multi-country survey of 7,000 European respondents, Oberthur Fiduciaire found that 52% switched to digital and 49% feared touching banknotes, whilst 76% would be reassured by the presence of anti-viral protection on notes, and 46% would make cash their No 1 payment method again if it was used.
Added to which, although banknotes are safe, they are not without risk. Various studies have shown, for example, that human-to-human transfer through contaminated surfaces touched with the hand is very likely, and that our hands touch our faces 23 times per hour, of which 10 times are on the mucous membranes which are the main entry points to our body. These surfaces refer to any which different people come into contact with – door handles, ATM and POS terminals, stair rails etc. And, of course, banknotes. Moreover, several studies, conducted decades before the latest COVID-19 pandemic struck, have evidenced the presence of substantial amounts of bacteria and viruses on banknotes.
In light of this, he mused, ‘it is puzzling to observe the relative denial of our rather risk adverse industry in dealing with the general public, when scientific literature and evidence should at least have triggered the precautionary principle’.
Enter Bioguard – which was first launched in 2004 as an additive to the substrate which had anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, providing protection against the spread of bacteria and micro-fungi widely found on banknotes and which are a major cause of accelerated ageing. This was followed in 2010 by a version which offered a defence against viruses as well, specifically those that cause common colds and influenza, reducing their density on banknotes to negligible levels within 24 hours.
The latest Bioguard formulation is the next iteration, providing protection against viruses in general and the COVID-19 virus as well as other coronaviruses in particular. When the pandemic hit, Oberthur Fiduciaire worked with its historical Florida-based partner Biological Consulting Services (BCS), a laboratory specialising in the field of pathogen analysis, to incrementally improve the Bioguard formulation.
Thanks to those efforts, Bioguard now achieves high performance against seasonal coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, and flu. Tests have shown showing 99.4% efficacy in killing off viruses, 99.9% resistance to fungi, and 100% resistance to bacteria after six months in circulation.
Whilst an improved Bioguard formulation was launched at the start of the pandemic, it was only last autumn that the company was able to confirm the result of tests on SARS-CoV-2 viruses, confirming the performance measured on other coronaviruses. Bioguard paper treatment on unvarnished notes improved performance 160 times versus standard paper, while Bioguard varnish improved performance 16 times versus standard varnishes.
‘To put these performances in perspective’, noted Etienne, ‘as of two weeks ago in France, 3-shot vaccination only reduces ICU risk 7.5 times vs. no vaccination at all’.
There are no volatile compounds used in Bioguard, so it lasts as long as the banknotes themselves. It is non-toxic (one of the agents is already used in the cosmetics industry, another in the food industry), and neither does it facilitate antibiotic resistance. It is a mix of antiseptic components that target several structural elements of the bacteria which, as rudimentary organisms, cannot adapt.
In terms of application, Bioguard is available as an additive for inclusion within substrates and, through a licencing agreement with SICPA, in varnishes too for post-print treatment of paper, hybrid and polymer notes. The company wants Bioguard to be available to all central banks and printworks, regardless of their manufacturing processes, and is offering it an incremental price lower than 5% of their current prices, so that the adoption of Bioguard will not be diminished by financial considerations.
Last but not least, Bioguard has absolutely no visible impact and can be added to an existing series of banknotes without any effect on the visual appearance of the banknotes, security features or machine readability. In deploying Bioguard, nothing changes other than adding it to the paper sizing or post-print varnish.
‘In light of scientific evidence it would be highly presumptuous and risky for our industry to claim that we do not need to do anything to make our banknotes safer’, said Etienne. ‘The industry now has Bioguard as a solution. It is inexpensive, highly efficient, long-lasting, harmless for users and the environment. And it has no impact on banknotes look and feel’.
Since 2020, 11 countries have trusted Bioguard for 19 denominations, representing 1 billion notes. Oberthur Fiduciaire is keen to see that figure increase, and has set up a new subsidiary, Bioguard & Co, to expand the adoption of the solution outside of the banknote industry.
Concluding his presentation, Etienne said: ‘hopefully this pandemic is behind us. However, every year, we get influenza and cough spikes, while infectious bacteria are permanently present. We all know that a new pandemic will come at some point. So let us be prepared for the next one. We have time to do so if we don’t delay action too much’.