There has never been a documented incident whereby the COVID-19 virus has been transmitted from a print newspaper, print magazine, print letter or print package, according to the world's top doctors and scientists (writes Earl Wilkinson).
In recent days, the International News Media Association (INMA) has received a few inquiries about this scientific possibility - to which we cited World Health Organization (WHO) guidance on the matter. Yet the unprecedented global pandemic naturally breeds a paranoia about everything we touch, so let me present to you what INMA knows on this subject.
This article distills research and guidance from four sources that debunk concerns:
John Innes Centre (MP3).
We will augment this research with secondary sources and our own member publisher feedback to conclude that newsprint is a safe surface in the current crisis.
ABP's Telegraph in Calcutta, India, produces an advertisement (above) showing the safety measures - from production to distribution to street sales - being undertaken to ensure print is safe for readers.
What scientific research shows
Here is what the WHO says about whether it's safe to receive a package from an area where COVID-19 as been reported: "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 temperate is also low."
Hartford Healthcare put it more bluntly: "Don't worry about deliveries to your house. Coronaviruses don't last long on objects."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says "it may be possible" for a person to get COVID-19 by touching a surface that has the virus on it, "but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads."
The WHO and CDC statements sound like a hedging of the unknown -- fair enough in these times. Yet the fact remains there have been no incidents of transmission on print materials.
A study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), UCLA, and Princeton University scientists published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine showed the varying stability of the coronavirus on different surfaces. Across aerosols, plastic, stainless steel, copper, and cardboard, the lowest levels of coronavirus transmission possibilities were via copper because of its atomic makeup and cardboard - presumably because of its porous nature. (The Economist has a fantastic graphic illustrating this study.)
Emphasising that the virus spreads when transmitted by aerosols, researchers duplicated these droplets and measured how long they stayed infectious on surfaces.
The coronavirus lasts longest on smooth, non-porous surfaces. Researchers found the virus was still viable after three days on plastic and stainless steel. Researchers say that is not as ominous as it sounds since the virus' strength declines rapidly when exposed to air. Because the virus loses half its potency every 66 minutes, it is only one-eighth as infectious after three hours when it first landed on a surface. Six hours later, viability is only 2% of the original, researchers found.
The virus was not viable after 24 hours on cardboard -- and the good news here, like plastic and stainless steel, is lower and lower potency when exposed to air.
For newsprint, which is much more porous than cardboard, virus viability is presumably even shorter.
In a March 13 Washington Post article, author Joel Achenbach put last week's study in human terms:
"Outside, on an inanimate surface, the virus will gradually lose the ability to be an infectious agent. It may dry out, for example. It can degrade when exposed to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. A person sneezing on a surface may deposit many thousands of virus participles, and some may remain viable for days. Still, the likelihood of a person who comes into contact with the remnants of that sneeze goes down over time, because most infections are the result of a large viral load."
Cornell University infectious disease expert Gary Whittaker told The Post it typically takes "an army of viruses going in" to break through the natural defenses of a human being - meaning surface transmission is a low likelihood of transmission.
Experts worldwide feel certain surface transmission of the coronavirus through newsprint is highly unlikely. News media companies should be intentional with their response to ease the concerns of readers.
In a March 10 interview on BBC Radio Scotland, John Innes Centre virologist George Lomonossoff, who uses molecular biology to understand the assembly and properties of viruses in the United Kingdom, debunked the idea of transmission through newsprint: "Newspapers are pretty sterile because of the way they are printed and the process they've 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. The chances of that are infinitesimal."
How publishers are reacting and communicating
News publishers are reacting in different ways to concerns - expressed or unexpressed - about newsprint:
Home delivery: On a basic level, they are providing hand sanitiser and wipes to home delivery staff and leaving newspapers outside of buildings.
Single-copy distributors: I'm hearing stories of publishers providing gloves, masks, and sanitisers to newsstands, distributors, and street sellers ostensibly for the protection of its workers - yet I suspect equally to reassure the public when buying print newspapers and magazines.
Notices about print processes: The Wall Street Journal put a fixture in its print edition starting this week referencing its paper production process is mostly automated and the risk is low.
Don't forget our replica: Out of an abundance of caution, publishers are emphasising their digital replica services for those still worried about newsprint - something already being promoted to hotels.
Plastic polybagging: One interesting tidbit emanating from this topic is plastic polybagging. While many publishers have been reducing plastic in recent years, plastic may be necessary for good quality home delivery in some markets. Again, there are no examples of plastic carrying the virus.
In other words, in addition to the scientific research about porous surfaces and the particular sterility of newsprint, publishers are taking extra steps to ensure print newspapers are touched by no unprotected hands by the time the product reaches the customer.
What's not clear to me is whether it's best to proactively communicate to customers this 'non-transmission via print' news. There are a few incidents of publishers sending reassuring communications to readers - only to see cancelled print subscriptions as a result. I can only assume that readers had never thought about transmission until the publisher brought it up. Instead, I'm hearing publishers developing talking points for when readers ask about print transmission.
All scientific evidence suggests porous paper surfaces, to which we include newsprint, are safe from the coronavirus:
There has never been a reported incident of COVID-19 being transmitted via newsprint.
The early scientific research on virus transmission to inanimate surfaces suggests porous surfaces carry the lowest potency for the shortest period of time.
Newspapers are even more sterile because of the ink and the printing process they go through.
Publishers are protecting customers through health and safety precautions at printing plants, distribution centers, newsstands, and home delivery.
We suggest these be talking points distributed to media company staffs as customers inquire. Be careful of elevating these points that might inadvertently create fears where none are warranted by the scientific evidence.
• Earl J. Wilkinson is executive director and CEO of INMA. He may be reached at email@example.com or @earljwilkinson. This post is part of The Earl Blog at INMA.org reproduced with permission.
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