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Australian National Science Agency claims Virus can Survive for Weeks on Banknotes and then Plays Down Panic

Categories : Cash and Crises, Cash is the first step of financial inclusion, Cash is the most widely used payment instrument
October 14, 2020
Tags : Australia, Cash and Crises, Coronavirus, Financial inclusion, Health
Since the beginning of the pandemic, a steady flow of disinformation has distorted the role cash may play in spreading Covid-19. Now, Australia’s national science agency has published a controversial study suggesting that the virus could survive up to 28 days on banknotes in strict laboratory conditions. However, the study’s lead author, confusingly, is minimizing the infection risk presented in his own work.
Guillaume Lepecq and James Shepherd-Barron

This post is also available in: Spanish

To date, there are no known cases of Covid-19 transmission via banknotes or coins

The World Health Organization, like Germany’s leading public research body the Robert Koch Institute, has said that banknotes and coins play no significant role in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus (Covid-19). This has been corroborated by all of the following: the European Central Bank; the Bank for International Settlements; the Reserve Bank of New Zealand; the Bank of Canada; the South African Reserve Bank; the Bank of Finland; the Riksbank and countless other central banks.

The Bank for International Settlements wrote in April that the probability of transmission via banknotes is low when compared to other frequently-touched objects. “To date, there are no known cases of Covid-19 transmission via banknotes or coins,” the bank said. “Moreover, it is unclear if such transmission is material compared with person-to-person transmission or transmission through other objects or physical proximity.”

Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), and the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, has just published a new scientific study suggesting that the coronavirus can live on many surfaces, including banknotes, for significantly longer than initially assumed. But this finding was made under highly select laboratory conditions that deliberately made no attempt to replicate ‘real-world’ conditions. It was then sensationalised by the world’s media in a simplistic and misleading way.

The virus does not spread via surfaces

The experiment was conducted in the dark, negating the effects of UV light. Australian National University professor of infectious diseases, Peter Collignon, told The Guardian newspaper that this is known to reduce the life of the virus on surfaces. The ECB has also tested the viability and transferability of the Covid-19 virus on banknotes in a yet unpublished study. Early results indicate that coronaviruses can survive more easily on a stainless steel surface (e.g. door handles) than on cotton banknotes. Survival rates are from 10 to 100 times higher in the first few hours after contamination. Other analyses indicate that it is much more difficult for a virus to be transferred from porous surfaces such as cotton banknotes than from smooth surfaces like plastic.

In a paper published by the Lancet in July, Rutgers University professor of microbiology, Emanuel Goldman said, “the chance of transmission through inanimate surfaces is very small”, adding that a significant risk had been determined with “little resemblance to real-life scenarios”. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California, said in September that the coronavirus did not spread via surfaces.

CSIRO downplays risk of infection

In a radio interview on 12 October, CSIRO biorisk pathogen specialist and study lead author, Shane Riddell, played down panic regarding the findings. There are many factors that may reduce the length of time the virus remains on a surface, he said. “In real life, it is important to understand, other factors such as UV light, different humidities and temperatures, all play a role in how long the virus survives.” Mr. Riddell said people should not fear handling physical money, groceries or mail. “We still don’t know what an infectious dose is, so whilst there may be virus on a surface it may not be enough to actually cause an infection … Money is no more or less bad for you than stainless steel, vinyl or glass.”

Fear-mongering headlines

“The deliberate use of fear-mongering hyperbole in headlines like ‘Coronavirus May Stay for Weeks on Banknotes and Touchscreens’, such as has appeared on Bloomberg (newswire), does a disservice to the CSIRO scientists trying to better understand how long the virus persists on surfaces,” commented Mike Lee, CEO of the ATM Industry Association. “There was no attempt in this lab experiment to simulate real world conditions, which calls into question the true applicability of the research results. The last thing we need is a second spike in media misinformation to go along with a second spike in infections.

Marginalising the use of cash by urging its avoidance, hurts those who rely on it most; especially the 1.7 billion people in the world without bank accounts and the 95 million caught up in the more than 60 conflicts and complex humanitarian crises happening currently. For the first time in 20 years, extreme poverty in the world is expected to rise in 2020 due to a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and assorted conflicts. For OXFAM International, “Over half of the world’s population could be living in poverty in the aftermath of the pandemic.”

Evidently, this is a topic that warrants further research. And action.

For further information, on cash and disease transmission, watch our Audiographic.




This post is also available in: Spanish