U.S. markets closed

Can the coronavirus spread through cash exchanges or live on credit cards?

Dalvin Brown, USA TODAY

Sometimes it's hard to avoid surfaces and objects that other people have touched, which is a common way for bacteria to travel. Numerous studies have shown that ATMs, credit cards and those payment tablets popping up in restaurants are rife with all sorts of illness-causing germs. Plus, despite the rise of digital wallets, millions of Americans still use old-fashioned paper money every day. 

Which raises the question: Can coronavirus live on the cash in your pocket or on the plastic in your purse?

"Cash is not a good vehicle to transport respiratory viruses, however, cards have a little bit more potential," said Dr. Susan Whittier, a clinical microbiologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital at Columbia University Medical Center. "If someone is coughing, and then they hand their credit card to someone across the counter, I wouldn’t rule out the potential of transmission." 

Coronavirus fallout: Study says people aren't downloading flight and hotel apps

Impact on business: Restaurants struggle amid fears of coronavirus outbreak

Viruses, in general, tend to survive longer on hard surfaces like credit cards and coins than they do on porous surfaces like fabric and dollar bills, Whittier added. 

Still, Chinese banks have started essentially washing money to destroy potentially infected cash before it's handed back out. 

"Cash received by banks must be sterilized before being released to customers," the Chinese government's website recently announced. The nation is using ultraviolet light and heat to kill any bacteria on the surface of currency.  

While it's certainly not necessary at this point, making digital payments and transfers could be a viable solution for people shaken by the mere threat of infected cash. 

"Anytime you decrease coming in contact with contaminated surfaces, you’re decreasing your risk of coming in contact with viruses," Whittier said. 

There's been a surge of investment in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin since news of novel coronavirus hit the airwaves, which may or may not be pure coincidence. 

Bitcoin, a market leader, saw a record month in January, breaking $100,000 a day in China alone, the company's CEO Stefan Rust told USA TODAY. The decentralized digital currency saw "a greater surge beyond that" globally in February. Bitcoin is currently trading $10,152 per share. 

Second to Bitcoin in the mobile payments space is Ethereum, which saw shares gradually rise in mid-January, though shares are priced much lower at $278. The digital currency platform Ripple saw shares jumped around the same time. 

China, which seems to be ground zero for coronavirus cases, is a digitally savvy nation that's light-years ahead of the U.S. when it comes to doing away with paper money. 

But the potential economic downturn as factories shutter, workers stay home and tourism halts could drive investors to flee risky stocks and park their cash in other places. 

"People are looking for a safe haven and cryptocurrency might be that safe haven," Rust said.

Someone also took to Reddit this week to announced a new strain of cryptocurrency dubbed "Coronacoin," which claims to be backed by the spread of the deadly respiratory illness. A portion of the funds generated will be donated to Red Cross, according to coronatoken.org. 

For now, Coronacoin is virtually worthless, trading at less than half a cent, according to the bitcoin tracking site CoinGecko. 

Follow Dalvin Brown on Twitter: @Dalvin_Brown. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Credit cards transport germs: Is Bitcoin safer from coronavirus?