Fed Quarantines Cash from Asia In Precautionary Bid to Stem Coronavirus Spread

March 6, 2020 Updated: March 6, 2020
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A Federal Reserve spokesperson told Reuters Friday that banknotes coming into the United States from Asia were being subjected to a mandatory quarantine due to concerns over potential coronavirus contagion.

The quarantine, which lasts from seven to 10 days, pertains to shipments of physical bills the Fed routinely receives from Asian countries that are first processed and then redistributed within the United States.

The spokesperson said the policy—which was introduced on Feb. 21—was a precautionary measure to help combat the spread of the virus on U.S. soil.

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A Chinese bank employee counts 100-yuan notes and US dollar bills at a bank counter in Nantong in China’s eastern Jiangsu province on Aug. 6, 2019. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

While person-to-person contact is the main channel of transmission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says it may be possible to transmit the pathogen through objects that have had direct contact with the virus.

“Transmission of coronavirus occurs much more commonly through respiratory droplets than through contact with contaminated surfaces,” the CDC said in a note, using the technical term for the novel coronavirus. “Current evidence suggests that SARS-CoV-2 may remain viable for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials.”

The Fed says there is currently around $1.75 trillion dollars’ worth of physical banknotes in circulation, consisting of some 43.4 billion individual bills.

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As the global reserve currency, the greenback is the most widely distributed form of legal tender in the world.

Similar Moves by Other Central Banks

The Fed’s counterparts in China and Korea have ordered local currency notes to be disinfected with ultraviolet light or be destroyed altogether.

According to news reports, China’s central bank said it would begin disinfecting its yuan currency at high temperatures and with ultraviolet light before it is placed under a 14-day quarantine. Fan Yifei, deputy governor of the Chinese central bank, said that banknotes at hospitals, buses, and markets will be destroyed, and 600 billion yuan ($86 billion) will be printed and placed in circulation.

While it remains unclear how long the novel coronavirus can survive outside the human body, a spokesperson for the Bank of England noted that the virus could potentially spread via banknotes.

“Like any other surface that large numbers of people come into contact with, notes can carry bacteria or viruses. However, the risk posed by handling a polymer note is no greater than touching any other common surface, such as handrails, doorknobs or credit cards,” the spokesperson told The Daily Telegraph, adding that England’s central bank had no plans for banknote quarantines or similar measures.

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Euro, Hong Kong dollar, U.S. dollar, Japanese yen, pound and Chinese 100 yuan banknotes are seen in this picture illustration, Jan. 21, 2016. (Jason Lee/Illustration/Reuters)

The World Health Organization (WHO) also weighed in on the potential banknote contamination issue, urging people to forego cash and instead use contactless payments.

“We know that money changes hands frequently and can pick up all sorts of bacteria and viruses and things like that,” said a WHO spokesperson, according to The Daily Telegraph. “We would advise people to wash their hands after handling banknotes, and avoid touching their face,” they added. “When possible it’s a good idea to use contactless payments.”

The virus, which appeared in China in late 2019, primarily spreads through close personal contact such as touching or shaking hands and respiratory droplets released into the air through coughing or sneezing. Spread can also happen through touching contaminated surfaces and then one’s face.

Officials recommend people wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, avoiding touching their eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands, and stay away from sick people.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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