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China is sterilizing cash in an attempt to stop the coronavirus spreading

A Chinese clerk counts renminbi yuan banknotes at a bank in China on December 2015.
Jie Zhao | Corbis News | Getty Images

Chinese banks have been ordered to disinfect cash before issuing it to the public in an effort to curb the spread of the new coronavirus that has so far killed 1,770 people in the country.

The Chinese government said during a press conference on Saturday that banks would only be permitted to release new bills which had been sterilized.

Banks across the country had been told to withdraw potentially infected cash from circulation and disinfect it using either ultraviolet or heat treatments, the government's State Council told reporters. Decontaminated cash would then be stored for seven to 14 days before it could be returned to the market.

Money removed from high-risk sites such as hospitals and markets would be sealed and specially treated, but it would then be held by the People's Bank of China (PBOC) instead of re-entering circulation, officials said.

Cash transfers between China's provinces had also been suspended, which the State Council claimed had minimized the movement of personnel and reduced the risk of transmitting the new strain of coronavirus — formally named COVID-19 — during transit.

In a separate press conference on Saturday, Fan Yifei, deputy governor of the PBOC, told reporters the central bank was working to issue new, uninfected bills across mainland China.

"After the outbreak, we paid great attention to the safety and health of the public's use of cash," he said, according to a translation by Google. "Prior to January 17 this year, the People's Bank of China arranged to allocate nearly 600 billion yuan ($86 billion) of new banknotes to the country."

Authorities issued 4 billion yuan in new banknotes to Wuhan, the city at the epicenter of China's coronavirus epidemic, before the Lunar New Year holiday in late January.

Fan added that the Chinese state would accelerate work in the field of mobile payments in a bid to prevent human contact through cash exchanges.

"It should be said that China's electronic payment system is relatively advanced," he said. "Recently, there have been some new developments in various places — people pay for their orders on their mobile phones, and they can buy fresh and affordable meat, eggs, vegetables and fruits without going out, which has solved a major problem in people's lives during the outbreak."

However, Muhammad Munir, a virologist at Lancaster University in England, told CNBC Monday that China's efforts to decontaminate cash would have a minimal impact on containing the coronavirus.

"While COVID-19 can spread through contaminated objects, the duration of virus survival on currency notes is not determined," he said in an email, explaining that this made it difficult to determine an effective method of removing traces of the virus from cash.

"The majority of daily purchases are already made through online shopping — the actual impact of restricting currency notes usage or disinfection will be slight," he added.

Munir noted that maintaining good hand hygiene was the best way to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus — advice shared by many medical professionals amid the coronavirus outbreak.

"The exchange of money among hands is one of several ways of person-to-person contact," he said.

"The logical approach to intervene in virus transmission is hand-washing using alcohol-based hand sanitisers. Viruses can spread through touching contaminated surfaces, door handles, chair arm rests and the sharing of electronics. Maintaining hand hygiene is an appropriate means to prevent the spread of the virus."

China's National Health Commission reported on Monday that 2,048 new cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed on Feb. 16, bringing the country's total number of infections to date up to 70,548.