After the discovery of SARS-Cov-2 viral particles on a few isolated food packaging, the risk of transmission through food has been much discussed and highlighted. Scientists and the WHO call for this risk not to be overestimated, which is real but apparently too low to constitute a real danger to public health.
The news caused a stir yesterday, Thursday, August 13: several Chinese cities announced that they had found traces of SARS-Cov-2 on packaging of Brazilian chicken and Ecuadorian shrimp. Quickly, a wave of concern rose among the public and those in charge of the agro-food sector. Since then, the World Health Organization has called for not drawing hasty conclusions and wants to be reassuring. “We don’t think the coronavirus can be transmitted through food […] China searches packaging for virus, has tested hundreds of thousands, found less than a dozen positive”, Explains Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO spokesperson on Covid-19. “People shouldn’t be afraid of food and food packaging”, Adds Michael Ryan, who coordinates the management of health emergencies within the organization.
A probability too low to threaten public health
An analysis shared by virologist T. Jacob John, interviewed by Reuters: “The number of particles that come out of a person’s mouth or nose is far greater than a few viral particles that would remain on frozen food”, He explains, estimating the risk “very weak”. This is also the opinion of microbiologist Emanuel Goldman; last July, he explained to The Atlantic than “Surface transmission of COVID-19 is not justified at all at the present state of our knowledge.”
However, he does not deny the possibility of this mode of transmission, but explains that it is based on theoretical cases that have no equivalent in the real world and that it should not be interpreted statistically as a real danger to public health. In an article published in The Lancet last July, he said: “I am not disputing the precautionary principle, but all of this can go to extremes not justified by scientific data. A more balanced perspective is needed to stem counterproductive excesses”. He is again joined on this point by Michael Ryan: ““There is no evidence to suggest that food or food chains are involved in the transmission of the virus […] This type of information should not be inflated. People are afraid enough of the pandemic already”, He concludes.