To: The Prime Minister, Minister for Health, and Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management
Dear Messrs Morrison, Hunt and Littleproud
I note the recent difficulties with meat processing in North America as workers have become ill with COVID-19 causing a large proportion of processing capacity to close. In response, President Trump today has signed an executive order to include meat processing as critical infrastructure forcing meat processors to stay open even when there have been outbreaks of COVID-19 in facilities.
Thus far concerns expressed in the press has been for the welfare of the workers and for the welfare of US citizens in maintaining access to meat supplies.
I have a research background in infectious disease and worked for a number of years in Biosecurity Australia conducting risk analyses on the importation of animal products (Prawns, Freshwater Crayfish, and Bivalve Molluscs). My work did not focus on traditional food safety aspects, but obviously there is significant overlap in the technical aspects of those analyses.
While I share the concern for meat workers, who work closely together in cool, damp conditions in the absence of natural light, ideal conditions for the persistence and spread of viruses, there is a far greater concern which at present has not been acknowledged presumably for fear of the impact that it would have on the reputation of meat as a commercial product. (From my years at BA I understand very well the sensitivities held by commercial interests around food safety issues.)
A far more significant and society-wide concern is the potential for SARS-CoV-2 contamination of meat during processing and its persistence in product which may lead to processed meat being a significant factor in spreading and prolonging the COVID-19 pandemic.
As I consistently state in my posts at http://MacroEdgo.com it has only been 4 months since my friend and former colleague (and co-author) Dr Shi Zhengli with her team identified the SARS-CoV-2 virus. I state this because it is important to recognise that we only understand the tip of the iceberg with this virus and it would be very imprudent, in fact arrogant, to assume that we already understand all of the impacts of this virus on humans. I would cite the emerging concerns over a new form of disease in children that has been associated with SARS-CoV-2, which has been discussed in the press in recent days, as being supportive of the need for extreme prudence.
Nonetheless, with innovation in the modern food industry allowing perishable foods to be traded widely domestically and internationally the importance of this vector in the spread of pathogens has been acknowledged and has been the topic of considerable analyses, and even with a paucity specific data on persistence of SARS-CoV-2 at various temperatures, the potential of the foodborne route of transmission is clear given the apparent spread between workers in meat processing plants.
This raises a number of critical issues for the Australian community and specific groups.
Firstly, the experience of the North American meat processing plant workers demonstrates that these people are particularly at risk of acquiring COVID-19 and it is a work place health and safety issue.
Is the Department of Health taking action on this in collaboration with State workplace health and safety officials? Has there been a risk assessment done and what risk mitigation practices have been enacted? For example, are these workers being tested regularly irrespective of whether they show symptoms of COVID-19? And what process will ensue if infections amongst meat workers are detected?
In the US this issue has impacted the farmers because 25% of pork processing and 10% of beef processing capacity has been closed. Pork producers especially were impacted and were needing to euthanise stock. It is therefore a serious issue for the agriculture industry and associated ministry.
Finally, it is a serious issue for the broader Australian community on a number of fronts. There is some suggestion in the press that meat processing plants are serving as amplifiers of disease in North American communities as many of the worst affected counties house meat processing plants.
Second is the food security element where a prolonged break down in the supply of meat could impact the nutrition of Australians, the livelihood of Australian farmers and associated workers, and create heightened anxiety within society.
Finally, and to my mind the most serious issue, is the potential for the spread of the pandemic both geographically with movement of processed meat products and over time with the likelihood that virus will remain infective for prolonged periods within processed meat and associated fluids and packaging.
These are all critical issues that require very close examination by your Departments as well as transparent and open communication with affected groups and the broader public.
I cannot complete this letter without taking the opportunity to remind you of your failings and timidity in moving more quickly to effectively close our international border and work to eradicate COVID-19 as I implored you (PM Morrison) to do in my letter dated 3 March 2020 and in my writing on MacroEdgo through February.
With the current creeping movement to relax social distancing measures I feel that we are again at a high level of misunderstanding of the risks that we confront.
Almost daily we learn something new about how COVID-19 can affect humans and modern society, both directly and indirectly.
Much of what we learn is from the northern hemisphere which is emerging from winter which is likely to be, and there is some supportive research data now emerging, the most serious period for the pandemic.
As we in Australia are now heading into winter we should assume the worst, that there are many subclinical infections within the country and that we will suffer a serious flare up in the depths of winter if we do not throw all of our resources at detecting the virus and eliminating it.
I consider it a grave error in judgement to loosen in any way social distancing measures until we get into the depths of winter and can justifiably feel more confident that we are on top of the situation.
Finally, while your Government has always appeared heavily occupied by the economic impacts of measures necessary to lessen the toll of COVID-19 on human health, and thus by my definition society (because I understand that people are always more important than money), it should be becoming clearer to your Government that actions taken to safeguard the health of Australians will have significant positive economic benefits.
If you had acted earlier to enforce biosecurity measures, as I discussed in my letter, then we may have already eradicated COVID-19 and this would have allowed our domestic economy to be open already.
Now, it should be readily apparent that the Australian image of a premium source of clean and green agricultural and other products will be enormously enhanced if we manage to eradicate COVID-19 and that would have enormous trade and broader economic benefits.
Alternatively, to loosen measures for the sake of perhaps an extra month or two of additional limited commercial activity may come at the cost of allowing COVID-19 to become widespread in our population for an entire winter season. If a vaccine does become available before the next northern hemisphere winter, then that would make us in the southern hemisphere the only region other than Wuhan to experience an entire winter season with COVID-19 running rampant.
That would scar the Australian people deeply and would have severe and long-lasting impacts on our society and our economy.
Finally, if you consider my language emotional I assure you that it is not due to lack of respect for your elected office. I am passionate about seeing the best decisions for Australians and for humanity.
Dr Brett F Edgerton (BSc, PhD, GradCertCom)
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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2020