COVID-19 on surfaces: what do we know so far?

The COVID-19 outbreak has been declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organisation, with infection rates rising rapidly worldwide. The virus affects the respiratory system of infected individuals, with symptoms such as coughing, fever and shortness of breath commonly reported. COVID-19 is spread via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets may be transferred to healthy individuals through direct contact – or by touching a contaminated surface and then touching the mouth, nose or eyes. What is the potential risk in food production facilities? Is there a concern for food and food packaging? And does the virus remain viable for longer on certain surfaces?

Outside of the body, viruses may remain infectious for several hours, depending on where they fall. Viruses generally remain viable for longer periods on hard surfaces such as stainless steel and plastic, compared to porous surfaces such as cardboard, copper and fabric. Research has shown that the novel coronavirus is no different. A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine detected coronavirus on plastic and stainless steel for up to 72 hours and 48 hours respectively after exposure; however, the virus was only viable on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and on copper for up to 8 hours.

Figure 1. Viability of SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 on various surfaces (taken from study by Van Doremalen et al. (2020) in the New England Journal of Medicine).

Currently, there is no evidence that coronavirus remains viable in food. Although the virus could be transferred onto food or food packaging by an infected person or contaminated surface during production, it would probably be inactive by the time it reached the consumer, because of the long food supply chain. However, should a contaminated food product be consumed while the virus is still viable, there is no evidence that the virus will pose an infectious risk via the digestive tract.

The greatest coronavirus-related risk in a food production environment is the potential transmission of the virus between employees. Food production typically involves a large number of staff in a small area, performing a lot of ‘hands-on’ work. If one employee were to be infected, transmission rates would increase rapidly, and the functioning of the production facility would be compromised.

Fortunately, the lipid envelope surrounding the coronavirus makes it highly susceptible to many cleaning agents. Solutions of 62-71% ethanol, 0.5% hydrogen peroxide or 0.1% sodium hypochlorite (bleach) have been identified as effective cleaning agents that significantly reduce coronavirus infectivity on surfaces within one minute by disrupting the lipid envelope, according to a recent review in the Journal of Hospital Infection (Kampf et al., 2020). It is therefore crucial to ensure that surfaces within a production facility are cleaned frequently and efficiently, paying special attention to touch-point ‘hotspots’. There may also be value in distancing workers within the facility as much as possible, and staggering break times, to minimise interaction and potential transmission.

COVID-19 is likely to have a significant impact on all industries and ways of life, so it is of great importance that the food industry prepares appropriately for this pandemic.

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