COVID-19 outbreak

Published: 13 March 2020. Reviewed: 31 March 2020

Martin D'Agostino, Virologist

To help members, we have produced a short video summarising the main points around coronavirus and COVID-19 in relation to food and drink. Please note the following changes since the video was produced:

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I keep hearing different terms being used to describe the current Coronavirus outbreak. We hear Coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19? - what’s the difference between all these and what do they mean.

Coronavirus = umbrella term for the family of viruses: any of a family (Coronaviridae) of single-stranded RNA viruses that have a lipid envelope studded with club-shaped projections which can infect birds and many mammals including the common cold in humans.

COVID-19 = specific name of the illness related to the current pandemic and the acronym for "Coronavirus Disease 2019"

SARS-CoV-2 = name assigned to the virus which causes COVID-19 and the acronym for "severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2"

In the food industry we often hear about Norovirus and we’ve just had the major FSA report published on Norovirus in Foods. So what’s the difference between Coronavirus and Norovirus?

We must remember that any virus can only increase its numbers when infecting its host cells. Once outside the cell its cannot "grow" or increase numbers at all, so once outside of a human host, and in the environment both Norovirus and SARS-CoV-2 cannot increase in number, and indeed will gradually decrease in number over time.

Turning to the differences between the two:

Although they are both viruses, they cause illness in very different ways and their routes of transmission are different. This is a common source of confusion. We believe that SARS-CoV-2 is relatively unstable on the surface of foods and other materials, and cannot as far as we know, cause the Covid-19 infection via the ingestion of the virus, since it is a respiratory disease and has to be inhaled. Norovirus and other non-enveloped viruses such as Hepatitis A on the other hand can quite happily remain infectious for prolonged periods of time on the surfaces of foods and other materials given favourable conditions. These of course will result in infection by ingestion as they cause gastrointestinal illnesses.

So what we are saying is that evidence we have at present, would suggest that the potential for infection via eating foods is very highly improbable as the SARS-CoV-2 virus has to be inhaled to infect. Food is not likely to be a source of infection.

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

According to the NHS, the symptoms can be very similar to other illnesses that are much more common such as cold or flu, so it is likely to start with a fever, followed by a dry cough and then after about a week shortness of breath. If you have any of these symptoms you should follow current NHS advice.

What is the best way of reducing the risk of transferring the virus from person-to-person, person-to-surfaces and person-to-foods?

First, we have to rank the three areas of transmission - people, surfaces and food - from high to low risk.

The highest risk would be from person-to-person spread with the main risk from droplet infection, which is where coronaviruses are emitted from someone via droplets in the air and then inhaled by someone else, such as by coughing. Also ,since this is a respiratory disease, infection can usually only occur after inhalation of droplets containing the virus, however other routes of transmission could include if an infected person coughed into their hand, then shook someone else’s hand and that person then touched their face, the risk of infection would then be increased.

Second, contracting the infection from hard surfaces is not currently considered to be a high risk, and the likelihood of inhaling droplets will be far less. However, to minimise any risk, ensure you practice good respiratory hygiene and good hand hygiene as per current recommendations as well as cleaning the area affected using your normal cleaning protocols. If you think there is a need to do a deeper clean – for example, if someone in the area has been showing symptoms and an area is likely to have become contaminated – then follow the latest guidance from PHE.

Thirdly, the risk of contracting the illness from food is negligible, for the reasons already stated. It is not considered to remain infectious on surfaces, including food surfaces for long periods of time and again, it would have to somehow be inhaled from the foods themselves. If you ingest foods which have the virus on the surface, the risk of infection would not be from ingestion of the food.

In general, to help reduce any risk, washing hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water is recommended. If those facilities are not available, alcohol-based handrub which contains at least 60% alcohol content is recommended by WHO, the CDC the NHS and PHE.

What if your job involves close contact with members of the public, such as checkout workers in a supermarket?

There is currently no extra advice for people who go to work in public places, which could include, for example, checkout workers in a supermarket. The NHS say that you need to have close contact with a person to be at risk and the NHS guidance defines “close contact” as being within 2 metres of an infected person for more than 15 minutes, so this type of brief contact with individuals is not considered to be a risk at the moment.

Should I wear a facemask?

There is little evidence of any widespread benefit from the use of facemasks outside healthcare and clinical settings. They need to be worn correctly, changed frequently and disposed of safely in order to be effective.

Many retailers are running out of alcohol gel handrub. Is there an alternative recommended?

Official advice from all the main sources of information dealing with the virus, such a PHE, WHO, the NHS and the CDC in the US is that handwashing is the best option, and hand sanitisers could be used as an additional factor after proper hand washing, or when handwash facilities are not available. If you don’t have facilities for washing your hands with soap and water, the official recommendation currently is to use a handrub that has at least a 60% alcohol content.

Many enquiries have been about ingredients and packaging sourced from China or other affected areas potentially being contaminated. Should companies be concerned about these being a risk to consumers?

Currently, both the CDC in the US and EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, are saying the risk of infection from materials such as ingredients and packaging are extremely low and that currently there is no evidence that food is a likely source or route of transmission. EFSA has pointed out that previous outbreaks such as SARS-CoV (~2002) and Middle East Respiratory syndrome coronavirus, or MERS-CoV as it is otherwise known (~2012), show that transmission through food consumption did not occur.

What if one of my employees has symptoms or has returned from an area where large numbers of infections have been reported?

If you think one of your employees has symptoms or has returned from an area where large numbers of infections have been reported, send them home and get them to follow current NHS advice.

Are there any recommendations on cleaning areas such as factories?

Continuing with normal routine cleaning regimes should be sufficient unless there is a particular problem with employees showing symptoms and large areas becoming contaminated, since these types of viruses are easily killed by routine cleaning. If areas have become visibly contaminated, a 1000 ppm available chlorine bleach solution can be used on hard surfaces. If soft furnishings have become contaminated, steam cleaning is recommended.

We have had and hear about all sorts of precautions such as travel bans, stopping use of public transport, cancelling meetings etc. Should this be something people do?

The actions people take are really up to the individual and company and should be taken after a proper risk assessment that covers risks to the individual concerned and the business. Taking on board up to date travel advice from Government sources is key, and as this is likely to change from day to day, keep on checking.

Besides that, individuals and businesses should do their own risk assessments and act on the outputs of those assessments, and these should be revised continually as new information is produced.

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