Story at a glance
- Virologist Matthew Moore says people are unlikely to catch the coronavirus from food surfaces.
- It comes down to the structure of the viral particle, and the coronavirus, though easily transmittable, is not hard to kill.
- “Serious concern and precaution, but not panic” is Moore’s ultimate advice.
Amidst the anxiety surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, consumers across the U.S. have been exercising their panic at the local stores. Scarcity of sanitizing products, face masks and even toilet paper have caused prices to skyrocket to the point where CDC officials have advised against stockpiling goods.
There are also concerns about items that are not sealed or packaged and can’t be easily stockpiled — namely, produce.
As people become intensely aware of just how many germs we humans interact with daily, the question of how many people touched that mango in aisle 4 can induce a tsunami of anxiety. Can I get the coronavirus from exposed food? Should I just be hoarding canned food to stay safe?
Professor Matthew Moore, a virologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is here to reassure you.
“It’s possible,” he allows, “but in terms of the majority of infections and in terms of risk ... it is unlikely.”
Moore, who has a Ph.D. in food science, points out that the coronavirus simply is not made to survive in an environment for a long period of time. Most research suggests coronaviruses survive on surfaces, if undisturbed — or not treated with a disinfectant — for about four to five days.
This is due to the structure of the coronavirus: It has a lipid envelope. This is a membrane made up of lipids that surrounds the coronavirus particle.
Moore breaks down the general difference in viral particles:
“There are different types of viruses. One of the ways you can classify them is some viruses have a lipid envelope, like our cells or like bacteria, and then there's another set of viruses that only have a protein capsid that protects the nucleic acid of the virus,” he explains. The novel coronavirus falls into the first category of viral particles with an outer lipid envelope.
This is good news; viruses with a lipid envelope are not as “environmentally stable” as those with protein capsids, and therefore they tend to be easier to disrupt — or easier to kill — and will not necessarily transmit themselves environmentally.
Moore stresses this distinction and reiterates that COVID-19 is generally a respiratory illness, not a food-borne illness, which means that “the biggest way you're going to get it is through direct contact with somebody.”
So, if a person walks into a supermarket, they are putting themselves at potential risk if they run into somebody in the supermarket who is infected with the virus. But it is significantly less likely that it will be contracted from food or surfaces with the proper precautions.
Moore points out that coronavirus particles can deposit on high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs. Contact with a contaminated surface can result in infection if the virus enters the mucosal areas of the body, or the membranes that protect the body’s internal organs, especially the nose, mouth and eyes.
Still, Moore advises people “to not freak out” or avoid going into grocery stores or supermarkets over fear of catching the coronavirus.
To best reduce the risk of a COVID-19 infection, Moore recommends using hand sanitizer and washing your hands, in accordance with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.
Sanitizers with an alcohol content of 60 percent or more will help combat the virus, again due to the unstable lipid envelope that surrounds the particle.
“If you have ethanol hand sanitizers, or even a non-ethanol hand sanitizer, those work. Washing your hands works because lipid envelopes are susceptible to being killed very easily by a lot of the commercially available disinfectants,” Moore says. Face masks, however, will not prevent a coronavirus infection.
As a general best practice, always washing produce — regardless of the current pandemic — will help prevent some food-borne illnesses, except on raw meat. Moore says that if a pathogen is on a food like chicken or fish, rinsing it can spread the external bacteria everywhere, which increases risk of cross contamination and the creation of aerosolized droplets.
When comparing COVID-19 to past coronaviruses, Moore does not anticipate the mortality rate to exceed SARS or MERS, although COVID-19’s mortality rate appears to be surpassing that of influenza.
For those who are especially concerned with contracting the coronavirus, Moore advises being prepared with food at home. He says self-quarantining is a good idea if someone thinks they are sick. His bottom line advice: Exercise “serious concern and precaution, but not panic.”