A new grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will go towards an Arkansas research project looking into ways to curb the spread of COVID-19 in restaurant settings.
Food scientist Dr. Kristen Gibson with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture will lead the multi-institution research project, with help from the $987,000 grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Gibson says the goal is to see which surfaces commonly found in restaurant dining rooms put customers at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.
“There hasn’t been a lot of attention paid to the materials and surfaces that you may find in food service establishments; materials that may be textiles or fabrics or what we would call porous surfaces,” Gibson said. “The virus behaves a little differently on those types of surfaces, and so we really want to understand how long it survives on those surfaces so then we can make appropriate recommendations… for how often you should clean and disinfect.”
The central question, Gibson says, is to determine the relationship between different common restaurant surfaces and how long COVID-19 lives on them, as well as how easily they are spread off of surfaces through physical contact. She says viruses can survive for longer periods on different surfaces, though that doesn’t necessarily mean that makes it easier for the virus to spread to humans.
“With a fabric, you could see that the virus could infiltrate into the fabric and then may not be as available to transfer back to someone. And so it may survive in the surface, but it may not transmit to someone. So we want to kind of tease out those aspects of the virus,” Gibson said.
Gibson says, because her experiments will use non-deadly viruses similar to the coronavirus, she’ll enlist actual humans as test subjects for studying how viruses spread off of surfaces.
“We’re actually going to have someone in the lab that is going to be repeating the transfer experiment, so we’ll actually be using someone with their own human skin… and that has been done in the literature, and so really quantifying the transfer from the hand to the surface and from the surface to the hand,” Gibson said.
Gibson says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will compare viruses she plans to use in her experiments against the actual coronavirus to ensure the reliability of her research. The project will also study the efficacy of various hand sanitizers in combatting the spread of the coronavirus. She says the effort will likely take one year to produce results, which could then be included in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Code that governs health regulations for restaurants.
She says those recommendations can help guide restaurants in which surfaces to use and how to carry out proper hygiene and disinfection to ultimately prevent the spread of COVID-19 and lessen the economic impact the pandemic has had on the food service industry.