Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update 30 June

WHO Situation Report 161 for 29 June (released 30 June Brisbane, Australia, time)

Globally: 10,021,401 confirmed cases (178,328 new), 499,913 deaths (4,153 new)

From my earliest updates I understood that these numbers would escalate exponentially, so that when I was writing single digit numbers I knew very soon it would be double digit numbers, then in the thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and then millions. Knowing and understanding does not translate to being emotionally prepared, and I cannot begin to express how sad I feel every time I write these huge numbers, or when I look back at my report of 11 February and see that there was only 1 death outside of China.

When I began writing these updates it was a very deliberate decision to leave the year off of the date. I knew this was never going to be limited to a 2020 event. I simply had no intention of writing updates beyond the first year of the pandemic because I knew it would be too depressing. My next post will detail my concern for how I believe the pandemic will play out beyond 2020, and what will be the implications for our society.

Graphs from Johns Hopkins University Dashboard. Briefly, as discussed in the previous update, South American countries are on a rapid trajectory, and the lack of leadership in the US is showing up in the top graph with a now clear upward inflection which will get worse and be reflected in the lower graph.

Since my previous update the new outbreak in Beijing which was associated with the finding of the novel coronavirus on cutting boards used for imported salmon in a wholesale food and seafood market has led to China enacting new requirements on imports of processed meats and some other goods. All shipments must be accompanied by certification attesting to freedom from contamination by the novel coronavirus.

I have added to my Youtube videos on COVID-19 food safety in processed meat with several videos on handling specific processed meat in various circumstances, along with a summary video discussing the risks.

Now as I have stated on that video, and elsewhere, I agree that there is ample opportunity for China to use this issue as a technical barrier to trade, firstly because many countries including Australia do that, and because of the fluid nature of geopolitics surrounding China at present. I would suggest that including soy beans (which are primarily used to feed to pigs) in the list of products requiring attestation of freedom from novel coronavirus contamination may hint at this potential. Then again, one possibility that I have not canvassed is the potential for pigs to actually be infected by the virus, and that as a potential reason for why slaughterhouses and processers to be especially impacted, thus the need to be extra careful with the feedstock given to livestock. (I do not know how much research attention has been given to assessing pigs as potential hosts – experimental transmission experiments would need to be carried out in the highest level biosecurity facilities capable of large animal trials, and they are as rare as hens teeth, and this is probably not a high priority for research.) Also, I have inspected seafood processors while working for Biosecurity Australia, though never a salmon processor, and understand these to be highly mechanised and thus likely lower risk due to lesser contact with humans and lower probability of contamination.

Nonetheless, I consider it a favour to the world to highlight the risk of the spread of this pathogen with especially processed meat, and for me the benefits of that outweigh any potential for political interference.

I have been conducting some research on what potential risks all of this pose to Australia in terms of establishing new clusters of infection with imported processed meat. Uncooked meat obviously presents the greatest risk as the novel coronavirus and other similar viruses can survive refrigeration and freezing for prolonged periods, but is quickly inactivated at cooking temperatures.

These are the current biosecurity policies for the importation into Australia of the major forms of uncooked meat for human consumption:

  • Salmon is permitted entry from Canada, Denmark, Norway, Ireland, UK and US processed in those same countries plus Germany, Philippines, Poland, Sweden and Thailand.
  • Pork is permitted entry from Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, UK and US if kept under biosecurity/quarantine control until processed at an approved premise.
  • Beef is permitted entry only from Japan and Vanuatu.
  • Uncooked chicken is not permitted entry from any country other than New Zealand and presently it is not allowed from there either.

So it is really only salmon and pork that is imported into Australia in uncooked form from countries that are experiencing severe COVID-19 outbreaks. As I stated above, based on my (albeit limited) experience in inspecting seafood processing facilities I believe that processed seafood represents a lower risk of contamination and thus transmission of the novel coronavirus than larger animals which generally use less mechanisation. On the other hand, the pathway for exposure is direct as people will take the frozen fish home and prepare it for consumption.

The import conditions for uncooked pork state that it must go straight into a quarantine approved premise for further processing. While this does not involve a pathway into Australian homes, obviously the sheer amount of uncooked meat that workers in these premises may come into contact with will increase the risk of transmission to these Australia workers. The list of premises permitted to process imported pork meat is on the agriculture department website, although the list may not be complete as inclusion on the published list is at the discretion of the business. The majority of businesses on the list are in Victoria. I would personally be interested to know whether there are any additional risk management procedures implemented at these facilities, whether they have imported uncooked meat over recent months from impacted overseas processing facilities (it is a condition of import that the premise and date of processing accompany the product on entry to the country), whether workers are undergoing additional testing for the virus (not just general symptoms), and whether workers at any of these facilities have been found positive for the virus.

Moreover, given investigations into the Cedar Meats cluster unearthed the practice of contract workers moving between different processing facilities, something that has been highlighted as a risk for spreading the pathogen, I would suggest that extraordinary care needs to be taken to ensure that workers at these facilities processing imported meat do not contract and spread the novel coronavirus.

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2020

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