Worst-case scenario: severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2, can stay active on flat, non-porous surfaces like money (both plastic and paper currency notes) and phone screen for 28 days. (SARS-CoV-2 is the new beta-coronavirus that causes COronaVIrus Disease 2019 or COVID-19.)

This finding, based on a study done by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the Australian government's scientific research organisation, was published in the peer-reviewed Virology Journal on 7 October 2020.

Why is this significant?

For two reasons: One, health organisations around the world have notified the public that surface transmission is a lot less likely than droplet transmission of COVID-19 (when someone sneezes or coughs or talks loudly, droplets from their mouth can travel a long distance and stay airborne for a while before falling to the ground). However, this doesn't mean that the threat of surface transmission—by touching surfaces that are contaminated with the virus—is still minuscule.

As economies open up and more of us visit ATMs and banks, we will have to be extra vigilant about maintaining hand hygiene and taking care that we don't unwittingly or accidentally touch our eyes, nose or mouth after handling money or touching surfaces that may have the virus.

(Having said that, there's no need to panic: our skin is an excellent barrier against attack from such viruses. Unless there is a cut or wound that breaks the skin, these pathogens cannot enter the body via this route.)

The second reason is that the virus seems to have a longer life when the ambient temperature is 20 degrees Celsius compared with 40 degrees Celsius. As much of the northern hemisphere heads towards winter, this study is a reminder to put our guard up again.

Read on to know more about the study findings and tips to handle banknotes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  1. Coronavirus on currency notes, flat screens and other surfaces
  2. Tips on how to handle money during COVID-19 pandemic

By now we know that the UV rays of the sun (especially UVC rays) help to kill the virus. We also know that different patients can have different viral loads, depending on which phase of the infection they are in (incubation, active infection or post-COVID). We also know that colder temperature can have a bearing on how long the virus can thrive.

The study by CSIRO looked at the worst-case scenario to determine how long the coronavirus survives on currency notes, among other surfaces. Here's what the worst-case comprised:

  • An ambient temperature of 20 degrees Celsius (the researchers also ran the tests at 30 and 40 degrees Celsius)
  • A dark room with little or no UV penetration
  • The highest viral load that is possible in an infected person

The researchers found that the virus stayed on:

  • Paper or polymer currency notes for 28 days at 20 degrees Celsius in a dark room—reducing the virus on paper notes by 90% at 20 degrees Celsius took about nine days. At 30 degrees Celsius, the virus survived on currency notes for a week. 
  • Cotton cloth and other porous surfaces for a maximum of 14 days at 20 degrees Celsius in a dark room (it took roughly 5.5 days to reduce the amount of virus on a piece of cotton cloth by 90%). This reduced to three days at 30 degrees Celsius, and 24 hours at 40 degrees Celsius.
  • Stainless steel for over 28 days at 20 degrees Celsius, seven days at 30 degrees and less than 48 hours at 40 degrees Celsius.

At 40 degrees Celsius, the virus was inactivated on cotton within 24 hours, on steel, currency notes and other surfaces, within 48 hours.

You might also be interested in Best surface cleaners and disinfectants during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Money passes hands between you and the vegetable vendor, the grocery shop, the auto or cab service, the bus conductor, the petrol pump attendant—and many other services that you pay for with cash. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is prudent to be a bit more careful about how you handle money. Here are a few common-sense tips:

  • The importance of hand hygiene cannot be overstated at this time. Remember to wash your hands with soap and water for over 20 seconds after you handle money. You can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. You can even make your own hand sanitizer at home.
  • Avoid touching your face while handling money, especially avoid the eyes, nose and mouth.
  • Where possible, pay online or through non-contact means like payment apps. On 16 March 2020, the Reserve Bank of India had issued a press release suggesting that people avoid going to crowded areas to withdraw money or make payments by going digital.
  • Wherever possible, getting sunlight or simulated sunlight on your currency notes can kill some of the coronaviruses. As the Australian CSIRO report pointed out multiple times, "SARS-CoV-2 has been shown to be rapidly inactivated under simulated sunlight".
  • In an office where paper, files and money exchange hands, you might consider getting a UVC lamp—make sure that only people who know how to operate this lamp use it, as the wrong usage of a UVC lamp can cause eye injuries and skin damage. (Read more: How to make the office safer during COVID-19)
  • Disinfect your wallet with an alcohol-based cleaner. Alternatively, leave your emptied out wallet in the sun for a few hours as often as possible.

Reserve Bank of India data show that as of 31 March 2020, there were 11,59,768 lakh banknotes in circulation in India—this figure is an increase of 6.6% over the previous year. While we can't shy away from dealing in cash, it may be a good idea to be more careful about hygiene while handling notes. If we do things right, this might even become one of the good lifelong habits we imbibe as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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