Newspapers not Covid-19 carriers, say top scientists

NEW DELHI, MAR 24 (AGENCIES) | Publish Date: 3/24/2020 12:12:00 PM IST

No one has been infected by coronavirus (Covid-19) through newspapers or packages with scientific research showing the virus does not survive on porous surfaces. The particular sterility of newsprint makes newspapers safe, the world’s top scientists and researchers have said.

Scientists at India’s top health research bodies and health experts have also said that holding newspapers in your hands is safe, and there is no evidence of them or other types of paper being carriers of Covid-19 infection.

Over the past week, there have been WhatsApp messages and forwards — stating that newspapers can be avenues of infection. But this has been roundly refuted by health experts and doctors. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the world’s most-cited research journal, on the varying stability of the coronavirus on different surfaces found that the lowest transmission possibilities were through copper because of its atomic makeup and cardboard because of its porous texture. The transmission was highest through aerosols and higher through plastic and stainless steel, the study found.

Nivedita Gupta, chief epidemiologist at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), told ET that Covid-19 is a “respiratory infection” and there is “no risk” of catching it through newspapers and packages.

“I do not think we should stop getting these things...,” said Gupta, whose organisation is tasked with tracking and documenting Covid-19 cases. The coronavirus loses half its potency every 66 minutes and is only one-eighth as infectious three hours after landing on a surface, and has 2% potency after six hours, researchers found.

It lasts longest on smooth, non-porous surfaces , and can stay live on plastic and stainless steel with steadily lowering potency for two to three days. The virus does not last on cardboard after 24 hours, and lasts even less on newsprint, which is far more porous than cardboard.

Experts have dismissed the misinformation that newsprint can cause Covid-19 across continents. “Newspapers are pretty sterile because of the way they are printed and the process they have been through. Traditionally, people have eaten fish and chips out of them for that very reason. So all of the ink and the print makes them actually quite sterile....,” Prof George Lomonossoff, a project leader in the Department of Chemistry at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, told BBC.

Leading experts, including from apex health research and public health organisations, as well government centres tasked with tracking and containing infections in India, have also dismissed misinformation regarding newspapers as potential carriers of Covid-19, saying it has no scientific basis.

National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) director Dr Sujeet K Singh said it is untrue that newspapers can be a source of Covid-19 infection. ”There is no evidence to suggest that. If it was happening, we would have said so to stop the infection. What we know about the virus, for sure, right now is that it spreads largely through droplets and fomites [infected surfaces], not newspapers,” said Singh.

The NCDC (Delhi) and Pune’s National Institute of Virology are two premier labs that have been testing samples for Covid-19 since the first two cases from Delhi and Hyderabad were reported on March 2.

Dr BK Tripathi, a medicine professor at Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital, where 14 Covid-19 and 50 suspected cases are in an isolation ward, echoed Singh, saying that claims of newspapers being able to transmit the infection is misinformation. “Towels, doorknobs, handles, plastic objects are known as fomites... But all [other[ articles we use in our daily lives will not transmit the infection. Newspapers do not transmit the infection,’’ said Tripathi.

Tripathi underlined the virus cannot survive in the open air for more than four to five hours. “In closed humid areas, the virus can survive for days as is the case with doorknobs, car keys etc. There is no recommendation to stop reading or getting newspapers. They [newspapers] are providing very important information,” he said.

Nivedita Gupta, a senior scientist with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)’s epidemiology division, said they have no evidence to suggest the virus can be spread through newspapers or items like milk packets. “I do not think we should stop getting these things...,” said Gupta, whose organisation is tasked with tracking and documenting Covid-19 cases.

Dr Amit Singh, an associate professor with the Centre for Infectious Disease Research at Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Science, cited a 2011 study on the 2009 H1N1 virus outbreak and added that a virus does not survive on porous surfaces like paper, cloth or tissue, but stays up to 48 hours on surfaces like steel, plastic, glass, aluminium etc. “This is simply because the protein envelope of a virus disintegrates easily in dry, porous surfaces. The viruses may last only for about four hours on such surfaces. This is based on evidence from the H1N1 flu epidemic.”

The World Health Organization, in the myth busters section on its website, addresses the question on whether it is safe to receive a package. “Yes. The likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low and the risk of catching the virus that causes Covid-19 from a package that has been moved, travelled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low.”

Dr T Jacob John, an emeritus professor at Vellore’s Christian Medical College, said newspapers are not the probable source of any infection. “A few human hands touch newspapers before they reach our homes. If one of these people are infected, there is a chance that some viruses may be deposited on the paper. But they will not jump out of the paper at you. They do not survive in the air. You do not need to stop newspapers. All you need to do is wash your hands after reading them and that is something you should be doing anyway,” said John, who is also a former head of the ICMR’s Centre for Advanced Research in Virology.

Dr Dilip Mavlankar, the director of Gandhinagar’s Indian Institute of Public Health, said there are no infections reported because of newspapers. “I think it is too much of a stretch of the imagination. What are the chances that somebody will cough on your newspaper? If people are very concerned, they can keep newspapers out in the sun for an hour. The virus would not survive in the open in the heat,” he said.

Dr Gupta said the survival of a virus depends on many factors like the type of surface, temperature, and humidity, among others. “Now, in the Indian context, we do not have data on how long the virus may survive on different kinds of surfaces because there is no rampant community transmission. So far, in all cases, people were infected either when they travelled abroad or when they came in contact with a Covid-19 positive person.”


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