Arkansas food scientist Kristen Gibson is leading a multi-institutional research effort to ensure that dine-in restaurant customers will not be exposed to COVID-19.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture has awarded a $987,000 research grant to Gibson, associate professor of food safety and microbiology for the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station. It is one of 17 rapid response grants totaling $13 million USDA-NIFA awarded through its Agricultural and Food Research Initiative.
The Agricultural Experiment Station is the research arm of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. Gibson also has a teaching appointment at the University of Arkansas.
Gibson said the goal of the two-year project is to provide scientific evidence that the COVID-19 precautions employed by the foodservice industry are working.
“We are very pleased with Dr. Gibson’s involvement in this important and timely research,” said Jean-Francois Meullenet, senior associate vice president for agriculture and director of the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station. “Dr. Gibson is a world-class virologist with significant research experience on the persistence of viruses on contact surfaces and the development of effective disinfection strategies. I am confident she will be a strong asset to this multidisciplinary team of researchers.”
Parag Chitnis, USDA-NIFA acting director, said, “It was quickly evident at the onset of the pandemic that the food supply, agricultural systems, families and education — key focus areas for USDA and our partners — would be greatly impacted by all the changes facing our society. USDA-NIFA is uniquely positioned to help fund rapid response research, outreach and education efforts, while continuing to support our base research, extension and 4-H youth development programs that are in place at all times to respond to producer and consumer needs, large and small, across the nation.”
According to research conducted at the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology in Munich, Germany, the disease usually manifests as pneumonia in the lower respiratory tract of humans. But viral loads have been detected in upper respiratory tracts and stool samples of patients, likely contributing to the virus’ high transmission rate.
According to the Bundeswehr IMB research, infected persons can shed the virus before symptoms appear, and peak shedding of SARS-CoV-2 by infected persons occurs by the fourth day after the onset of symptoms. Symptoms are usually still mild at that time, similar to the common cold. That peak is three to six days earlier than is typical of SARS-CoV, the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, a similar disease that spread around the world in 2003. But concentrations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus at peak shedding are 1,000 times higher than its predecessor.
Shedding of the virus by infected persons is how SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted from person to person. The most common means of transmission is by aerosol droplets expelled by coughing, sneezing, talking or simply breathing.
The virus may also be transmitted by contaminated surfaces. SARS-CoV-2 spreads to surfaces by expelled droplets that land on them or when the virus is expelled onto a person’s hand, and then the hand touches a surface.
How long the SARS-CoV-2 virus can survive on surfaces and how readily it transfers to people’s hands and then to nose or mouth are questions for which there are few answers, Gibson said, especially in a restaurant’s “front of the house” areas, like dining rooms and bathrooms where customers are allowed.
By March 2020, 60% of job losses related to COVID-19 were in the foodservice industry, according to reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
By July, many dine-in restaurants closed since the spring were beginning to open their doors to reduced-capacity crowds. According to the BLS, that led to an upswing in sales, and many laid-off foodservice employees returned to work. In August alone, foodservice jobs increased 134,000, according to the latest BLS report.
Still, the BLS report shows 2.4 million fewer foodservice jobs in August than in February, before dine-in foodservice halted.
Restaurant dine-in customers have been slow to come back, Gibson said, mostly because they are not confident that they will not catch COVID-19 while eating out.
Protection against COVID-19 in restaurants relies primarily on following Food and Drug Administration food safety standards for foodservice establishments. Gibson said those standards mostly apply to “back of the house” spaces where food is handled, including kitchens, storage and dishwashing areas.
The FDA mentions “front of the house” areas only in broad terms, Gibson said.
Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine has shown that SARS-CoV-2 can persist on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for up to three days, and on cardboard up to 24 hours. But the virus showed significant decay over time.
Another study published in the New England Journal tested the virus’ persistence on a wider variety of surfaces, including paper and surgical masks. It measured virus stability ranging from 30 minutes to seven days.
These studies and others demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 can persist on environmental surfaces long enough to permit contact transmission between infected and uninfected persons, Gibson said.
These studies’ limitations are that they do not measure SARS-CoV-2 persistence on materials common to “front of the house” restaurant settings, Gibson said. These include upholstery fabrics, carpets and other furniture. And they do not measure how well the virus persists while in contact with bodily fluids, like respiratory droplets.
Gibson is the lead investigator in the NIFA-funded research that will include collaborators within the Division of Agriculture, Clemson University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Our research will focus on the ‘front of the house’ environment,” Gibson said.
Gibson said she will use surrogate viruses — other respiratory coronaviruses that will serve as models to indicate how SARS-CoV-2 will behave under tested conditions. To measure her results’ reliability, the CDC will compare the surrogates against SARS-CoV-2. The CDC is the only institution in the collaboration operating labs with sufficient biosecurity.
Gibson said the goal is to inform a national action plan that can help the foodservice industry navigate the COVID-19 pandemic with increased confidence that it is protecting its employees and customers against the disease.
To accomplish that aim, she said the project has four objectives:
- Determine the persistence of SARS-CoV-2 and its surrogates on environmental surfaces common to the customer areas of foodservice establishments;
- Define the transfer rate of SARS-CoV-2 surrogates between surfaces and hands;
- Establish the efficacy of disinfectant strategies; and
- Determine the validity of detection tools to monitor environmental cleaning.
Gibson said the research team would use its findings to develop a national action plan and disseminate it to the Association of Food and Drug Officials, the FDA and other state and federal agencies and hospitality organizations.
The AFDO and the Society for Hospitality and Foodservice Management support the project and will help disseminate their findings.
“One of our primary goals is to whittle down the list to the disinfectants that will work best for the foodservice industry and develop a decision matrix based on surface type, active ingredient, ease of procurement and level of occupational health hazard,” Gibson said. “Learning how to address SARS-CoV-2 now will help us know what to do next time.”