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Can the new Coronavirus be spread through money?

Cash can be contaminated with potential bacterial pathogens. In a 2017 study conducted in the US, researchers swabbed $1 bills from a bank in New York City to see what was living on paper currency. They found hundreds of species of microorganisms. The most abundant were ones that cause acne, as well as plenty of harmless skin bacteria. They also identified vaginal bacteria, microbes from mouths, DNA from pets and viruses. It is also well documented that the porous surface of paper currency actually helps it hold on to most of the germs it’s carrying, so not many microbes wipe off on your hands—meaning money is not very good at transmitting diseases.

Each currency note transfers between hands thousands of times every year.

When it comes to viruses like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, there is little information in general. SARS-CoV-2 is spread by person-to-person contact—not normally by touching fomites (objects that may be contaminated with, and help transmit, infectious organisms) like cash. And, it’s unclear how long COVID-19 remains viable on surfaces—ranging from a few minutes to hours to potentially days depending on the temperature, humidity and surface type.

Strategies employed in other countries

Countries around the world have taken to adopting polymer plastic banknotes since as far back as 1990. While these notes are in general more durable, there is inconclusive evidence on their effectiveness in preventing the transmission of diseases.

The Bank of England adopted plastic notes officially in 2016

Some countries are washing or disinfecting cash, but there is no data demonstrating how this process works.

Recommended actions in India

The Banking lobby Indian Banks' Association (IBA) made an appeal to people to wash their hands after touching or counting currency in March of 2020. The IBA also asked customers to use online and mobile banking channels for making their transactions and avoid visiting bank branches as it could pose a risk to banks' front desk staff.

"Wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds before and after physical banking/currency counting/AEPS (Aadhaar-enabled payment system) transactions," IBA said. Subsequently, the banking association launched a campaign 'Corona Se Daro Na, Digital Karo Na'.

Whether repeated handwashing after handling banknotes is truly effective or indeed necessary is a matter of debate without conclusive evidence. In this regard, the only proven strategy is social distancing: limiting person-to-person contact by shutting down schools, bars, and other crowded places. That is what will slow infections, prevent health care systems from overloading, and reduce deaths. That is why everyone should do their part and embrace social distancing rather than worrying about using money.