Sirin Kale /The Guardian
As public health officials around the world battle to contain the spread of coronavirus, the World Health Organization has warned that banknotes may transmit the disease. “We know that money changes hands frequently and can pick up all sorts of bacteria and viruses,” a WHO spokesman told the Telegraph. “We would advise people to wash their hands after handling banknotes, and avoid touching their face.” The spokesman also advises using contactless payment options wherever possible, to minimise the risk.
“The primary transmission route is via droplets,” says Prof Jürgen Haas, the head of infection medicine at the University of Edinburgh. “These droplets are generated by coughing, and can directly infect another person via airborne infection, or by transmission via hands or other surfaces.”
Hass explains that coronavirus can persist on inanimate surfaces for “quite a long time”, although no one knows exactly how long yet, as Covid-19 is so new. “The survival time of the virus depends on the surface and the conditions,” says Haas. “The lower the temperature, the longer the survival time. If the temperature is warmer, the survival time of the virus goes down.” The viability of the virus will decrease during this time, reducing the risk of transmission.
Although coronavirus can be transmitted via inanimate objects, the odds of contracting it in this way are low. “The amount of virus that is potentially on an inanimate object is usually very small,” says Dr Christine Tait-Burkard, an expert in infection and immunity at the Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh. She explains that there typically wouldn’t be much coronavirus on a person’s fingertips, and it would still have to get past your respiratory system to infect you. “Your respiratory system is very good at filtering out viruses,” Tait-Burkard says.
While the risk is low, it is sensible to take precautions. Official NHS advice is to wash your hands regularly (or use hand sanitiser with at least 60% alcohol content, if you are not able to get to a sink), cough into your elbow and dispose of used tissues immediately. But which objects pose the greatest risk of coronavirus transmission?
Banknotes can carry the coronavirus. But try not to be too alarmed: the risk is small. “Unless someone is using a bank note to sneeze in,” Tait-Burkard says. Don’t worry too much about loose change. “Coins are actually very bad environments for viruses to survive,” she says.
Touching these is often unavoidable, and a lot of different people may do so, so be mindful of where you are touching the handle and wash your hands frequently to combat this.
Coffee machines or kettles will be handled by multiple people, so it’s a good idea to use hand sanitiser after doing the tea round.
ATMs or ticket machines
“If you’re withdrawing money from a machine, that’s also something that’s going to be touched by many people,” says Haas. Ditto ticket machines.
Escalators, tube handrails, banisters – all will be touched constantly, potentially by thousands of people a day. “If you’re on public transport, there’s no way not to touch the handrails,” says Tait-Burkard. “So when you get off, disinfect your hands.”
Communal bathroom surfaces
“People often blow their noses in the bathroom,” Tait-Burkard observes.
“Shaking hands is a frequent transmission route for disease in hospitals,” says Haas. “It’s why health personnel are supposed to regularly disinfect their hands.” If you are visiting someone in hospital, or have an appointment, wash your hands thoroughly before and after visiting.
Less of a problem in the age of smartphones, but if you share an office phone, it is something to consider.
“International travel is a risk factor for transmission,” says Tait-Burkard. So make like Naomi Campbell, and wipe down your seat pre-takeoff.
Anything in a GP surgery
“The public health advice is that you should call NHS 111, rather than go to your GP, if you fear you have coronavirus,” says Tait-Burkard. “But there will be some people who go to the GP, despite the advice. So there is a higher risk.” She points out that all GP surgeries usually provide free hand disinfectant – so take advantage of what is on offer, and apply it liberally.
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