The World Health Organization says that under certain conditions, frozen food packages may carry the coronavirus. But don’t worry—you’re unlikely to contract COVID from rummaging through the freezer section of your local grocery store.

The Xinfadi Market

Source: Al Jazeera English/YouTube

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Chinese scientists have linked several outbreaks to the two-million square-foot Xinfadi Market in China, where they discovered live coronavirus on a package of frozen codfish. They also found the virus inside the packaging.

But you won’t find packages like the ones at Xinfadi at your neighborhood Trader Joe’s. Xinfadi receives shipments of massive slabs of frozen meat and seafood. “A giant frozen slab is a very different surface and has very different conditions from those of a small package of fish sticks,” notes NPR. The slabs stay colder for longer, making them more hospitable to the virus.

Still, the finding is significant because it adds to our understanding of the possible origins of SARS-CoV-2.

Peter Ben Embarek, a food scientist, says researchers should explore the possibility that frozen meat, and perhaps frozen wildlife, contributed to the outbreak of COVID-19 at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China. Embarek led a team of WHO researchers that traveled to China to investigate the source of the virus.

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Wet Markets and the Virus’ Origins

Scientists have characterized wet markets like Huanan as “unique epicenters” for the transmission of pathogens. These markets feature both live and slaughtered livestock and wild animals for sale, as well as frozen meat and seafood.

Early in the pandemic, researchers identified the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market as a likely source of the new coronavirus. However, experts at the Wuhan Institute of Virology have refuted the idea that the virus first emerged in the market in Wuhan.

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“Buying, selling, and slaughtering wild animals for food is one way an animal-borne disease may infect people,” Dina Fine Maron wrote in National Geographic last April. “Viruses can spread more easily if animals in markets are sick or kept in dirty, cramped conditions, such as stacked in cages.”

A Cause for Alarm?

The WHO scientists’ findings raise new public health concerns about the processing of frozen meat and seafood on an industrial scale. However, experts emphasize that contracting the virus from frozen food packaging is extremely rare.

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“It’s very unlikely that you would get the virus from food,” says Emanuel Goldman, a microbiologist at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “SARS-CoV-2 is a virus you get by breathing.”

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