South African hospital group rejects claim that lab found COVID-19 on fresh produce

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Posts shared on Facebook and WhatsApp claim a South African hospital found that traces of the novel coronavirus had survived on the surface of fresh food items for 12 hours during lab tests. The claim is false and was dismissed by the hospital’s owners Netcare, which denies even having a laboratory at the facility in question.

More than a dozen Facebook posts have published the claim, which begins: “In our laboratory, we found trace amount of the virus on the skin of fruits and vegetables after 12 hrs. of being touched by another customer who was infected (sic).”

Some of the posts have been archived here and here.

The claim says that staff at the private Umhlanga Hospital in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province have been warned to avoid salads, or to wait for two days before eating fresh fruit and vegetables. The other suggestion is to disinfect produce with boiling water.

The worst offenders are said to be berries, cucumbers, apples and tomatoes "because some people eat the skin".

“This would explain why the virus is spreading faster in the West than Asia. Most Asians do not eat salad, and very few eat the skin of any fruit,” the claim continues.

The entire statement is attributed to a certain “Dr Sanjay Lundlal”.

A screenshot of a Facebook post with the false claim, taken on March 6, 2020

The claim was brought to AFP’s attention via our dedicated tip-off line on WhatsApp messaging service.

In an email to AFP, Netcare rejected the claim about uMhlanga Hospital as “absolutely untrue and fake news”.

“There is no Dr Sanjay at the hospital, the hospital does not have a laboratory where such tests are done and the hospital general manager confirmed that there was no such notice to staff,”  Netcare communications manager Marietjie Shelly said.

Shelly condemned the spread of false information.

“People who start such fake news cause unnecessary anxiety among the public and waste all of our time trying to set the record straight. Please ask your readers not to forward it on if they receive it.”

Netcare’s denial also appeared in the comments section of one of the posts responsible for publishing the claim.

A screenshot of the hospital’s denial taken from the comments section of a Facebook post on March 6, 2020

A study reported by AFP found that the novel coronavirus can survive for various lengths of time on some surfaces. 

However, medical experts and health organisations here, here and here said there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.

The World Health Organization says there is not yet a vaccine or specific treatment for COVID-19. 

A screenshot from the World Health Organization’s website, taken on March 6, 2020