Zero incidents of coronavirus transmission from newspapers
05:37 PM, March 25, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 06:18 PM, March 25, 2020

Zero incidents of coronavirus transmission from newspapers

There has never been a documented incident where Covid-19 has transmitted from a print newspaper, print magazine, print letter, or print package, according to the world's top doctors and scientists. 

The International News Media Association (INMA) received inquiries about this. INMA has 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 -- World Health Organization, The Journal of Hospital Infection, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and John Innes Centre -- that debunk concerns.

WHAT SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH SHOWS

"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," says WHO.

The US 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."

Both statements sound like a hedging of the unknown -- fair enough in these times. Yet the fact remains there have been no incidents of transmission through 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.

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. 

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. 

Cornell University infectious disease expert Gary Whittaker told The Washington 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.

A virologist at John Innes Centre 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 (internationally) are reacting in different ways to concerns about newsprint.

Home delivery: On a basic level, they are providing hand sanitisers and wipes to home delivery staff and leaving newspapers outside 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.

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. 

(This is a concise version of the original article that was published on The Earl Blog)

Earl J Wilkinson is executive director and CEO of International News Media Association (INMA). He may be reached at earl.wilkinson@inma.org 

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