The case for vaccinating key food workers

Posted: 8 February 2021 | | No comments yet

It’s difficult to know who should be next in line for the Covid vaccination. Here, Chris Elliott considers the case for food workers and highlights the ways in which China is managing outbreaks linked to frozen and imported food.

Chris' CornerThe roll-out of the Covid vaccination programme in the UK has been one of the very few events of the pandemic that has given any cause for hope and cheer. We owe a huge debt to our NHS staff, military personnel, and many others who are achieving what seemed to be the impossible.

Currently, many countries seem to be adopting different priority lists for who is vaccinated first. In the UK, this hugely challenging task has fallen to the Joint Committee on Vaccines and Immunisation (JCVI) to determine. It is perhaps impossible to fault their decisions thus far, with the most vulnerable being prioritised, quite rightly. But as the roll-out continues, we hear a lot of calls for key workers such as teachers to be next in line. Again (and as a father of a teacher) it’s hard not to agree with this decision. There have also been some calls for workers in the food manufacturing industry to obtain priority status. Having undertaken some research on this matter, I tend to agree. Let me try to explain why…

Given the enormous number of cases of COVID-19 we have had in the UK – over three million and counting – it has been incredibility difficult for epidemiologists to determine all of the many routes of transmission. However, in China, things are very different.

The first reason for this is that they have had relatively few cases of Covid. Secondly, they have a test and trace system that functions; and thirdly, there is a growing body of knowledge to suggest that the virus has a longer survival time at lower temperatures.

In China, when a new regional outbreak occurred in the wholesale market that serves Beijing, COVID-19 RNA was found on food samples. Furthermore, viral spread in three more cities was detected (Dalian, Qingdao and Tianjin). Transmission of the virus was linked to harbour workers who most likely became infected due to contact with frozen food and its packaging. And, within the past couple of weeks, there has been a report that another outbreak in a different Chinese city was tracked to workers in an ice cream factory. China’s response to these finding has been to greatly step up the monitoring and regulations to cover the whole refrigerated food supply chain.

While this information regarding transmission might seem disturbing, it is certainly not cause for panic. I believe a number of new routes for transmission of the virus will emerge as our levels of recorded infections further decrease. I also believe that the UK and elsewhere should follow the path of China and the monitoring of key workers in the cold chains should be increased substantially. Some of this work has already started to happen, with rapid tests available to a growing number of businesses.

Another important piece of information with respect to the Chinese data is that virtually every outbreak associated with frozen foods was due to imported food from regions that had very high levels of infections. Perhaps this is a role for the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA): to produce a ‘risk register’ for cold chain foods being imported into the UK based on outbreaks in other areas. This won’t mean banning foods from these countries, but rather implementing more stringent measures to counteract the threats.

I do believe that the vaccination of cold chain workers is something JVCI should look at closely and that they should be comparing the risks posed to food workers around the world and cutting off a potentially dangerous route of transmission.