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BYU study: COVID-19 virus lingered longer on cards than cash

By Ashtyn Asay - Daily Herald | May 13, 2022

Elise Amendola, Associated Press

In this June 15, 2018, file photo, cash is fanned out from a wallet in North Andover, Mass.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed how just about everything was done. Many businesses began recommending that customers use cards instead of cash, but did that really help to slow the spread of the virus?

A new study conducted by Brigham Young University researchers found that cards are actually more hospitable to the SARS-CoV-2 virus than cash — by a long shot.

Richard Robison, study author and a BYU professor of microbiology and molecular biology, conducted this study alongside a group of undergraduate students. The research team collected dollar bills, quarters, pennies and credit cards and introduced them to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The cards, cash and coins were then tested after 30 minutes and then again after four, 24 and 48 hours.

The study, which was recently published in PLOS One, found that the virus was almost immediately nonviable when placed on cash but could still be detected up to 48 hours after being deposited on plastic payment cards.

“I don’t think anybody was really expecting that,” Robison said. “But to see such a rapid loss of viability in such a short amount of time was, I think, one of the big surprises.”

Even at the 30-minute mark, SARS-CoV-2 was hard for the researchers to detect on the dollar bills. They found that it had reduced by 99.9993%. No live virus was detectable on the cash after 24 and 48 hours. However, the virus had only reduced on the payment cards by 90% at the 30-minute mark.

“While this reduction rate increased to 99.6% by four hours, and 99.96% by 24 hours, the live virus was still detectable on the money cards 48 hours later,” reads a press release distributed by BYU. “The coins performed similarly to the plastic cards, with a strong initial reduction in virus presence, yet still testing positive for the live virus after 24 and 48 hours.”

Robison was surprised by the way the virus reacted on the banknotes, which are 75% cotton and 25% linen. He would like to pursue this line of study further and look into why cash is so inhospitable to the virus.

Robison believes the myth that card usage is safer than cash payments is reminiscent of the other misconceptions about COVID-19 that developed throughout the pandemic.

“It’s just like so many things with this pandemic,” Robison said. “Because we didn’t have the information, so somebody just postulates something and said ‘sounds like a good idea to me.'”

In a second part of the study, researchers also rounded up dollar bills and coins from around the BYU campus and local businesses to test for the presence of the virus. Ultimately, after swabbing the surface of the money and a collection of payment cards, no viable SARS-CoV-2 was found on the randomly sampled cash or cards.

Additional study authors included Julianne Grose, a BYU professor of microbiology and molecular biology, and students Colleen Newey, Abigail Olaussson, Alyssa Applegate and Ann-Aubrey Reid.

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