As the novel coronavirus outbreak continues to batter China, the country’s central bank has implemented a new strategy to contain the virus—deep cleaning and destroying potentially infected cash.
The new measures, announced by the People’s Bank of China on Feb.15, aim to contain the spread of the virus, officially known as COVID-19. There is still a lot unknown about the virus, but it appears to survive for at least several hours on surfaces, according to the World Health Organization.
This is why buildings in affected areas are regularly disinfecting elevator buttons, door handles, and other commonly-touched surfaces—and why people are worried about cash, which changes hands multiple times a day.
All Chinese banks must now literally launder their cash, disinfecting it with ultraviolet light and high temperatures, then storing it for seven to 14 days before releasing it to customers, said the central Chinese government in a press release on Saturday.
Cash that comes from high-risk infection areas, like hospitals and wet markets, will be “specially treated” and sent back to the central bank instead of being recirculated.
And in the central bank’s Guangzhou branch, these high-risk banknotes may be destroyed instead of merely disinfected, according to state-run tabloid Global Times.
To make up for the supply, the bank will issue large amounts of new, uninfected cash; in January, the bank allocated 4 billion yuan (about $573.5 million) in new banknotes to Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak began, said the government press release.
Other measures includes suspending physical cash transfers between hard-hit provinces, to limit the possibility of virus transmission during the cash’s transit.
It’s unclear how “infected” cash in China may actually be—the virus likely dies after a few hours on surfaces, especially if it’s been killed with disinfectant. And most people in urban centers don’t use cash anyway—mobile payment apps are near-ubiquitous.
But as previous studies have found, money can be incredibly dirty. Each dollar, passed person to person, samples a bit of the environment it comes from, and passes those bits to the next person.
The list of things found on U.S. dollar bills includes DNA from our pets, traces of drugs, and bacteria and viruses, according to a 2017 study in New York.