UA research aims to protect restaurants from COVID-19 | Education

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Arkansas researchers are working to answer one of the top questions on Americans’ minds as the country struggles to recover from COVID-19: Is it safe to eat out?

Food scientists Kristen Gibson and Adam Baker are studying whether the restaurant industry’s disinfection practices are adequate to protect their restaurant patrons from COVID-19.

Gibson, associate professor of food science and microbiology at the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, is leading a multi-institutional research effort to ensure restaurant dining rooms are not contributing to the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded Gibson a $ 987,000 Rapid Response Grant last year to fund the two-year research project.

Gibson is the lead researcher in the effort which includes collaborators at the Agricultural Experiment Station, Clemson University, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Agricultural Experiment Station is the research arm of the Division of Agricultural Systems at the University of Arkansas. Gibson also holds a teaching position at the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas.

TEST THE TESTS

Gibson said the goal of the two-year project is to provide scientific evidence that the COVID-19 precautions used by the restaurant industry are protecting their customers.

Protection against COVID-19 in restaurants is primarily based on food safety standards from the Food and Drug Administration. But Gibson said these measures apply primarily to “back of the house” spaces where food is handled – kitchens, food storage and dishwashing areas.

“Our research is aimed at the ‘front of the house’,” said Baker, a post-doctoral research associate who leads research in Gibson’s lab. “These are the dining rooms and related areas where the diners are located.”

Target areas of Baker’s research include the surfaces diners touch and the hands that touch. For a recently published study, he placed a known amount of a surrogate virus on the subjects’ hands. The surrogate is a bacteriophage called Phi-6, a harmless microorganism that mimics the structure and persistence of SARS-CoV-2.

Baker has identified the most reliable tests for recovering consistent virus samples from hands. He also found that timing was critical. Immediately after application, 83 percent to 87 percent of the surrogate viruses were recovered from the hands of test subjects. In a test five minutes later, the recovery fell from 51% to 55%. The variation in percent recovery depended on the method used to recover the virus from the subjects’ hands. After 10 minutes, the recovery of viral particles fell from 32% to 38%.

“The recovery of the virus from human skin can depend on several factors,” Baker said. This may depend on the virus, the amount initially applied to the skin, the size of the virus droplets, the characteristics of the skin, the temperature and relative humidity.

TRANSFER

Gibson said the next step is to test the transfer from hands to surfaces.

“We know that transfer from humans to the surface occurs when an infected person sneezes, coughs or even speaks,” Gibson said. “These actions expel droplets containing the virus onto neighboring surfaces. Or a person may first transfer the virus to their hands and then touch a surface. “

They will also test for transfers from surfaces to humans, such as when a person touches a surface that an infected person has just contaminated.

They test different surfaces commonly found in public restaurant spaces, including metal, fabrics, wood and other materials. They even test the carpet. “We had to determine which materials were the most relevant and which ‘holes’ exist in other studies,” Gibson said.

Stainless steel is a great control for comparing results from other studies, Gibson said. “A lot of research has already been done on virus recovery from stainless steel due to its prevalence in food preparation areas. It’s not that common in dining rooms, but it makes a good comparison to see how our work fits into other studies.

PERSISTENCE

Baker said they are also testing different media in which SARS-CoV-2 transfers from humans to the surface and back to humans. Various organic substances can affect how long the virus survives on exposed surfaces.

“We use an organic medium which is basically artificial saliva,” Baker said. Saliva is the most common transfer medium, as humans spit out droplets that carry viruses.

Gibson said other media should also be tested, including a substance that mimics feces. “It has a lot to do with hand hygiene habits like washing your hands after using the toilet.”

Baker said they aimed to measure how long the virus persists at each stage when transferring from the nose or mouth to the hand, to the surface, to another hand and back to the mouth or nose of someone else. They also want to determine the best time and the best methods to collect viral particles at each stage.

“We are also looking at sequence transfers,” said Baker. “How many surfaces can you touch before the virus is no longer detectable.”

Gibson said the timing element is important because tests in several labs have already shown that tests cannot detect SARS-CoV-2 after 30 minutes.

This raises the question of whether COVID-19 can still infect a person even after living virus particle levels are too low to be measured. “Based on the methods we use,” Gibson said, “we can detect the virus up to five particles under ideal conditions. “

She said the type of surface makes a difference. In previous research, she has found it to be more difficult to collect particles from surfaces like carpet than from steel or plastic.

“So the problem is, does it matter? Gibson said. “If we can’t detect it, is it still spreading to people at infectious levels? “

DISSEMINATION

The NIFA-funded project is halfway through its two-year research effort. When completed, Gibson said the experiment station and other participating institutions will incorporate their findings to develop a national action plan and disseminate it through the Association of Food and Drug Officials, FED, d ‘other state and federal agencies and hotel organizations.

AFDO and the Society for Hospitality and Foodservice Management are supporting the project and will help disseminate their findings, Gibson said.

Gibson said the team had developed a fact sheet to help the restaurant industry use the U.S. EPA’s N list to find the appropriate disinfectants to use in their businesses. “There are currently 570 products listed,” she said. “Many of them, but not all, are tested specifically against SARS-CoV-2.”

Gibson said researchers narrowed the list down to the disinfectants that will work best for the restaurant industry and developed a decision matrix based on surface type, active ingredient, ease of supply and level. of occupational health risk.

CLICK HERE for an information sheet available from the Agriculture Division.


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