Congratulations to Virginia Tech and Reza Ovissipour, Ph.D. on winning a two-year, $1 million grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture to spearhead critical research studying how long SARS-CoV-2 survives on food, food contact surfaces, and other points along the food supply chain. The research team will address such topics as how to ensure that someone won’t contract SARS-CoV-2 from handling packaging and how to properly sanitize at all levels of food distribution and production.
Reza heads up Sustainable Food Production Systems in his lab at Virginia Tech, where he is also leading the cell-culture media components of the Clean Research development plan that will make cell-based lean fish a reality. His laboratory facilities support rapid scale-up of the critical research and experimentation necessary for the cell-based lean fish project.
After the completion of the SARS-CoV-2 study, stakeholders at all levels of the food supply chain will have access to the resulting materials that will inform a wide-ranging, systematic approach to safety, detailing steps that should be taken to ensure the health and safety of everyone involved, ensuring that the food supply chain is resilient now and in the future.
“Our knowledge about SARS-CoV-2 virus’ survival on foods and food contact surfaces, and in response to different disinfection methods, is very limited,” said Reza Ovissipour, primary investigator on the project and assistant professor at VT Food Science & Technology and the Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Experiment Center and a Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist. “The fate of the virus and how it can be transferred through the food supply chain has not been addressed yet. Thus, these significant limitations highlighted the unmet needs to develop systematic research approaches and training materials for industry. Based on this systematic approach, adaptable strategies will be developed across the food and agriculture industry to rapidly respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The team will conduct their research in a BSL-3 lab on the Virginia Tech campus with live samples of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. “One of the challenges of this lab setting is how we can mimic real situations that we have in the food industry or the supply chain inside of a BSL-3 lab setting due to limited space and safety concerns,” Ovissipour said. To meet that challenge, the research team also has a pseudotyped virus that mimics many of the same characteristics of the COVID-19 virus, but is not pathogenic, allowing for more freedom and safety in their research.
Some of the environments that will be simulated in the lab are different levels of humidity, temperatures, acidity levels, water activity, and surface properties, to determine if typical conditions involved in food packaging and handling impact the survivability of the virus. In addition, the lab will be testing common and novel food-grade sanitization methods to destroy the virus. Based on the outcome of the research, sanitation recommendations will be made for food and agriculture sectors.
Photo credit: Andrew Mann