Zero incidents of COVID-19 being transmitted through print

Research and guidance from four sources that debunk concerns

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ABP’s Telegraph in Calcutta, India, produces an advertisement showing the safety measures — from production to distribution to street sales — being undertaken to ensure print is safe for readers.
ABP’s Telegraph in Calcutta, India, produces an advertisement showing the safety measures — from production to distribution to street sales — being undertaken to ensure print is safe for readers.

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.

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 INMA presents you what it knows;

This article distills research and guidance from four sources that debunk concerns:

World Health Organization (WHO)

The Journal of Hospital Infection

National Institute of Allergy and Infection Diseases (NIH)

John Innes Centre (MP3)

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.

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 sanitizer 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 sanitizers 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 us 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. We can only assume that readers had never thought about transmission until the publisher brought it up. Instead, we’re hearing publishers developing talking points for when readers ask about print transmission.

Conclusion

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.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to the country-wide lockdown on 25 March 2020. It will be two years tomorrow as I write this. What have we learned in this time? Maybe the meaning of resilience since small companies like us have had to rely on our resources and the forbearance of our employees as we have struggled to produce our trade platforms.

The print and packaging industries have been fortunate, although the commercial printing industry is still to recover. We have learned more about the digital transformation that affects commercial printing and packaging. Ultimately digital will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future.

Web analytics show that we now have readership in North America and Europe amongst the 90 countries where our five platforms reach. Our traffic which more than doubled in 2020, has at times gone up by another 50% in 2021. And advertising which had fallen to pieces in 2020 and 2021, has started its return since January 2022.

As the economy approaches real growth with unevenness and shortages a given, we are looking forward to the PrintPack India exhibition in Greater Noida. We are again appointed to produce the Show Daily on all five days of the show from 26 to 30 May 2022.

It is the right time to support our high-impact reporting and authoritative and technical information with some of the best correspondents in the industry. Readers can power Indian Printer and Publisher’s balanced industry journalism and help sustain us by subscribing.

– Naresh Khanna

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1 COMMENT

  1. I worry more about the plastic bags and envelopes things are shipped in than newsprint, shipping boxes, and paper mail. First, anything inside a bag or envelope has been sitting there for a few hours, or even days, but the outside has been touched much more recently by the carrier, and viruses do survive longer on smooth surfaces like plastic bags (although the outside of the bags are exposed to the elements, and UV degrades viral RNA very quickly).

    Of course, washing your hands well after touching the outside of any shipping material and dumping out the contents (without touching the contents, of course), would break any possible chain of transmission between the carrier and you.

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