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03/23/2021

New studies to examine COVID's impact on food industry workers

Research funded by the federal government through its COVID-19 Immunity Task Force will provide a clearer picture of how the virus is transmitted among workers in the food business

Ottawa is providing $4.5 million to fund two new studies into how food service workers—including those in grocery retail—have been affected by COVID-19.

The research is being done through the COVID-19 Immunity Task Force (CITF), which the Government of Canada launched last April to study immunity from the novel coronavirus that causes COVID.

For one study, researchers from Universitè Laval will follow 450 people working in grocery, restaurants and bars in Quebec to see how many have antibodies to the coronavirus, suggesting a previous infection regardless of symptoms.

Additional tests will be done after three and six months. Those findings will be compared to 150 people working in hardware stores for comparison purposes.

Throughout the pandemic, the grocery sector and most food production businesses have remained up and running in some fashion. There have been frequent stories of workers in those settings contracting COVID and the new research should provide a clearer picture of just how many.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, food service employees have been at high risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to their close daily contact with a large number of people," said Dr. Denis Boudreau, PhD, professor, faculty of science and engineering at Université Laval, in a release. “However, there are still limited data on how many of these workers have been exposed to the virus and what their immune responses are. Our study will attempt to shed light on these issues.”

(Aside from blood testing techniques the researchers will also use a new “optical detection method” developed at Laval that uses a light beam to identify antibodies on a thin metal film.)

The second study, run by the University Health Network, will focus on employees at food production facilities and some food service outlets such as cafes and restaurants within hospitals in the Greater Toronto Area.

“Understanding how the virus may be transmitted in occupations where physical distancing is challenging due to the nature of the job is important,” said Dr. Amit Oza, MD, lead investigator at the University Health Network. “It will help provide important new information on how transmission occurs and how to stop it. It will also help inform fast and widespread testing and tracing practices.”

Similar to the Quebec research, bloodwork will be taken to look for the presence of antibodies. “Screening for COVID-19 even in the absence of symptoms is critical to help curb transmission as early as possible,” said Oza.

“Workers in the food production, retail or service industry may be at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, either because they have direct contact with many members of the public and/or because of their work environment,” said Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam. “Although vaccination is underway, it remains critical that we continue to support research studies that will help better understand COVID-19 transmission, its impacts, and different immune responses.”