One of EPA’s most prominent whistleblowers has reemerged, challenging how federal agencies are responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
EPA scientist Cate Jenkins blasted out an email last week questioning whether the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, can be transmitted orally through food and whether the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration have failed to convey the potential risk to the public.
"There is no reason to believe that food is safe and cannot transmit viruses, as the CDC and FDA are claiming," Jenkins told E&E News.
"There is no way there can ever be proof except with animal studies, and they would be too late to help prevent exposures now," she said.
The CDC and FDA did not return requests for comment.
Jenkins, a chemist by training, is best known for her work following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
She wrote multiple scathing documents criticizing EPA’s public assurances that the air in lower Manhattan, where the World Trade Center towers had collapsed, was safe.
Those reports were later vindicated by EPA’s inspector general and others, which found the air was highly contaminated with toxics including sulfur dioxide, asbestos and lead. And Jenkins later prevailed in a whistleblower retaliation proceeding against the agency.
Before that, Jenkins also blew the whistle on EPA’s handling of Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant that was widely used in the Vietnam War.
Jenkins last week questioned whether the coronavirus can be transmitted orally, from either food or food packaging.
She points to a recent study of cases in China that found many patients presented with respiratory symptoms like coughing, but a large subset of others experienced digestive issues like diarrhea first.
The study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology analyzed more than 200 patients. It found that in many cases, diarrhea was present as a symptom before respiratory issues.
And it suggested the disease may be more severe — causing a higher morality rate — in those with digestive symptoms.
"In this study, COVID-19 patients with digestive symptoms have a worse clinical outcome and higher risk of mortality compared to those without digestive symptoms, emphasizing the importance of including symptoms like diarrhea to suspect COVID-19 early in the disease course before respiratory symptoms develop," Brennan Spiegel, co-editor-in-chief of the journal, said in a statement.
The American College of Gastroenterology did not respond to questions about the CDC’s and FDA’s messaging on the issue in time for publication.
But the president of the Bethesda, Md.-based group, Mark Pochapin, told a local news station that those who think they may have been exposed should be on the lookout for diarrhea.
"It’s important to recognize that diarrhea may be more commonly seen early on in the presentation of COVID-19. And this is something we’re not really accounting for when we take a history. We’re looking at fever and respiratory symptoms. So people should be aware of this," he said.
The FDA says on its website that the virus has not been transmitted via food or food packaging.
"Currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19," the website states. "It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads."
Jenkins said she "cannot say with certainty" that there is "strong evidence" of the oral transmission route.
But she is "disappointed right now with the CDC and FDA" for "not more timely addressing the foodborne transmission problem."
Jenkins added that doctors like Pochapin and the American College of Gastroenterology should be pressing the issue.
She also questioned whether the CDC should be recommending everyone use some sort of respiratory protection when out in public.
The CDC recently said health care workers can resort to bandanas or scarves to at least offer some protection if other masks aren’t available, Jenkins noted. That suggests the public could protect themselves that way as well, she said.
The CDC "definitely slow-walked the need for respiratory protection by the public at large, understandably because of the lack of masks for the public," she said.
"With the understanding that health care providers and First Responders be prioritized for the provision of the most effective masks … for respiratory protection," she added, "the CDC should have at a minimum recommended the public wear some type of respiratory protection as well, even if only a bandana, scarf or allergy mask."