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Can COVID-19 Be Transmitted Through Frozen Food Shipments?


This week, the World Health Organization finished an investigation into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic in China. Scientists there believe the coronavirus may sometimes be transmitted through shipments of frozen meat and seafood. The WHO says that claim needs more research. But what does the science say? Should we be worried about our frozen food here in the U.S.? NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff reports.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: After COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan last winter, China isolated the city and largely got the outbreak under control across the whole country. Then, in the summer, the city of Beijing, about 700 miles from Wuhan, saw a big outbreak.

PETER DASZAK: For China, a big outbreak, I should say.

DOUCLEFF: That's Peter Daszak. He's a disease ecologist at the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance. He's also part of the WHO team investigating the pandemic in China. The outbreak in Beijing had more than 300 cases, and Daszak says it was centered around a massive wholesale market.

DASZAK: In Beijing called the Xinfadi market that was selling chilled meat and frozen meat, including fish, some of it imported from outside China.

DOUCLEFF: Now, this market isn't like your local grocery store. It's enormous. It's 12 million square feet, or bigger than 200 football fields. Inside, workers move large pallets of frozen meat and seafood in bulk and then ship it to stores across Beijing. Daszak says Chinese scientists looked for coronavirus all over the market, especially on large frozen packages.

DASZAK: It is a good bit of detective work. And what they found were coronavirus on the packages of food and, in a few cases, inside the package, suggesting it was where the food was packed.

DOUCLEFF: But Daszak says no one knows exactly how the virus got into this bulk packaging. Was it somebody who packed the frozen food, somebody on the dock that received it? Was it in the seafood itself? He says the Chinese believe frozen shipments like this have caused several outbreaks in China in the past year. So now the WHO team is looking to see if that could also be the source of that very first outbreak last January at a seafood market in Wuhan.

DASZAK: It was a seafood market. There was definitely frozen and chilled food there. But there was a lot else going on as well. So all of that's going to get looked it.

DOUCLEFF: And what they find, he says, will hopefully provide clues to the origin of SARS-CoV-2. Now, I know this all sounds a bit scary, and it goes against what scientists have been telling us for a few months now, that you get COVID from the air and you don't need to wipe down food packages. So what gives?

Emanuel Goldman is a microbiologist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. First off, he says, the cases in China were linked to industrial shipments of frozen food - shipments off docks. This is a specific environment and one very different from those a regular consumer would be in. This is not your individually packaged frozen food you find at the grocery store.

EMANUEL GOLDMAN: They haven't had any reports of consumers - even suspicion of consumers being infected by this route.

DOUCLEFF: And second, even under these very specific conditions, with industrial-scale shipping, Goldman says transmission through this route is incredibly rare.

GOLDMAN: It's so rare as to be of negligible importance in the real world to most people.

DOUCLEFF: And so do you think this is something that, like, just could happen, but it's like you'd be more likely to win the lottery?

GOLDMAN: That's a pretty good analogy. It's very unlikely that you would get anything coming from food. This is a virus we get by breathing.

DOUCLEFF: And so, Goldman says, the original advice stands. You don't need to wipe down your frozen pizza box or wear gloves when you go to buy frozen fish sticks.

Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF IL:LO'S "A.ME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.