Global Alert and Response (GAR)

Meeting on SARS virus detection and survival in food and water, Madrid, 8-9 May 2003

22 May 2003

Investigations of the global outbreak of SARS have shown that the major mode of transmission of the SARS virus is through close person contact, in particular exposure to droplets of respiratory secretions from an infected person.

However, in a cluster of SARS cases in an apartment block in Hong Kong, sewage is believed to have played a role through droplets containing coronavirus from the sewage system. The World Health Organization sees the need for research to better define the modes of transmission of the SARS virus through sewage, faeces, food and water. The potential for infection by ingestion, in addition to the close person contact route, must also be considered.

At a meeting in Madrid, May 8th - 9th 2003, WHO, in collaboration with FAO and OIE, brought together a group of concerned scientific experts who are ready to pursue this research agenda. The purpose was to gain a better understanding of how the SARS coronavirus survives in the environment, with particular reference to food, water, faeces and sewage. As a result, the group will work together in a research network, as part of the international effort to coordinate our collective understanding of the science of SARS and prevent it from becoming endemic. The proposed agenda for research covers standardized methods for isolation and quantification of the virus in the environment.

Recommendations were also made for relevant studies on the resistance, persistence and inactivation of the virus under conditions commonly found in food and water processing as well as sanitation and sewage treatments. Investigation related to faecal-oral transmission would be precautionary in nature since there is no evidence or epidemiological indication that the virus can be transmitted through this route. Nevertheless the research network is looking into potential future scenarios and the research needs that would follow. The report of the first network meeting will soon be available on the WHO web site.

As stated on 11 April 2003, WHO does not at present conclude that any goods, products or animals arriving from SARS-affected areas pose a risk to public health. WHO is actively pursuing further efforts to investigate and develop advice related to the prevention of SARS transmission. WHO is aware of and supports national efforts to ensure that good hygienic practices for food production is adhered to in SARS affected as well as in other areas. As with any infectious disease, an important general precautionary approach is to reinforce procedures relating to food worker hygiene, including active assessment for diseases.