Why are slaughterhouses becoming Covid-19 hotspots? Low temperatures, poor ventilation may aid virus spread

A new report explains why slaughterhouses have become Covid-19 hotspots and suggests that maintaining a physical distance of 6 feet is unlikely to protect people in these spaces

                            Why are slaughterhouses becoming Covid-19 hotspots? Low temperatures, poor ventilation may aid virus spread
(Getty Images)

Slaughterhouses across the word have become Covid-19 hotspots. A new report explains how low temperatures and poor ventilation in meat processing plants, may have helped the virus move for more than 26 feet or 8 meters.

The report comes from researchers who investigated an outbreak in a German slaughterhouse, which reported more than 1,500 infections. These findings suggest that maintaining a physical distance of 6 feet is unlikely to protect people in these spaces.

The researchers think these conditions may have made slaughterhouses vulnerable to Covid-19 in other countries as well. “It is very likely that these factors generally play a crucial role in the global outbreaks in meat or fish processing plants,” Adam Grundhoff, a research group leader at the Heinrich Pette Institute, Leibniz Institute for Experimental Virology, said in a statement. The study is published in a preprint platform and is yet to be tested for accuracy.

In the US, meat processing plants stayed open despite the raging outbreak. At least 509 meatpacking and food processing plants have been impacted, as of July 24, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. More than 46,000 workers have tested positive for Covid-19, and at least 188 workers have died.  

What happened at the German meat processing plant?

Researchers believe one infected person may have brought the virus to Tönnies in Rheda-Wiedenbrück -- the largest meat processing complex in Germany. While reconstructing the events that led to the outbreak, they found that conditions in the cutting room were responsible. Low temperatures, low fresh air supply, and constant air circulation through the air conditioning in the hall, together with strenuous physical work, helped the virus particles travel more than 26 feet, Dr Grundhoff, co-author of the study, added.

The German armed forces looking for possible Covid-19 infections in workers of the Toennies slaughterhouse and meat processing plant on May 14, 2020 (Getty Images)


“Our study sheds light on SARS- CoV-2 infections in a work area where various factors meet that allow transmission over relatively long distances. The important question now is under what conditions transmission events over longer distances are possible in other areas of life,” Melanie Brinkmann, Helmholtz Center for Infection Research, who was also involved in the study, said.

These findings come as experts have warned that the new coronavirus could exploit the working conditions in meat processing plants. “Factories and, in particular, indoor areas which are cold and damp are perfect environments for coronavirus to linger and spread.  The virus survives on cold surfaces. In the absence of ventilation and sunlight, virus-containing droplets from infected individuals are more likely to spread, settle, and stay viable," Prof Lawrence Young, Professor of Molecular Oncology, University of Warwick, said in a statement.

He also added that maintaining social distancing is difficult in production lines that have poor ventilation. "Speaking loudly or shouting across the noise of machinery can also result in the production of more infectious droplets and aerosols," he said in a statement.

Prof James Wood, from the University of Cambridge, also agreed. “If we do see outbreaks in slaughterhouses, one issue could be the challenges of avoiding close working between individuals on fast-moving slaughter lines and the substantial air movement that exists in and across many slaughterhouses and meat plants," he explained.

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