A new coating could protect ATMs from spreading diseases like COVID-19. But will it work?
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The leading maker of automated teller machines, NCR, knows people are worried about using the devices right now for fear of contracting COVID-19.
So the company has developed a new antimicrobial coating that can be applied to touch screens, button pads, and other parts of ATMs, self-checkout terminals, or other machines with surfaces that could become contaminated with viral droplets.
The coating has to be applied by a trained technician, and one application can last for about six months. The coating makes it difficult for viruses and bacteria to stay alive on the treated surfaces, though NCR still recommends that such surfaces also be cleaned regularly.
“While no one can claim 100% protection against today’s specific viruses, a significant proportion of everyday sicknesses are spread through hand contact, meaning an antimicrobial coating can be an easy way to add extra protection for your staff and customers,” NCR notes in a release about the new coating.
The COVID-19 pandemic—which has so far infected 8 million people and killed over 400,000 worldwide—can spread on surfaces, although aerial transmission is thought to be the more common way that the disease spreads. A trace of the virus can survive on untreated plastic or stainless steel for up to 72 hours, although it degrades quickly, according to widely cited research published in the New England Journal of Medicine in March. And the CDC has said touching contaminated surfaces “is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
Still, without scientific testing of the specific coating NCR is offering, scientists say it’s hard to know how effective NCR’s treatment will be at preventing COVID-19 from spreading via ATMs.
NCR did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Fortune will update this story if a response is received.
“The effort is commendable, but it is hard to judge,” Eugene Chudnovsky, a professor of physics at the City University of New York who has studied viral transmission mechanisms, tells Fortune. “It is not clear how specific it is to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and whether it was researched at all by NCR.”
“In theory, it sounds great, but is it practical?” asks Erin Bromage, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, who has been writing frequently about the COVID-19 pandemic.
A major question is how long the coating takes to make the virus inactive after someone infects a surface. “Most technologies like this require contact for one to two hours for inactivation,” Bromage explains. “So putting it on a high-use surface—one used every few minutes—would not provide meaningful protection to people touching that surface. If the technology inactivated the virus in minutes, then it’s a different story.”
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