Event organisers are hopeful that at least some tastings will take place as normal this autumn. But these ritual trade gatherings have the potential to become superspreader events for coronavirus. Report by Graham Holter
If you could somehow be parachuted into a London trade tasting tomorrow – taking public transport out of the equation – would you be tempted to go?
Little by little, it seems likely that the country will become less locked down, and a degree of normality will return to our work and life routines. The suggestion among various academics and commentators is that we may not be able to eliminate Covid-19, at least not yet, so we’ll just have to find ways of living side by side. Minimise risks, take sensible precautions, and avoid that dreaded second (and maybe third) wave of infection.
Scientific understanding of Covid-19 transmission is evolving all the time, and it’s possible that the picture may look very different by the time the autumn sipping and spitting season gets under way. But as things stand, wine tastings don’t look like a great idea.
A recent article published by Canadian science writer Jonathan Kay, in the journal Quillette, analysed so-called superspreader events (SSEs) in 28 countries. He was looking for patterns in the way large outbreaks of Covid-19 occur, and he certainly managed to find them.
It turned out that 70% of the SSEs included in the research involved one or more of the following activities: religious services or missionary work; parties and celebrations; funerals; and business networking.
Kay notes that all these occasions “seem to have involved the same type of behaviour: extended, close-range, face-to-face conversation – typically in crowded, socially animated spaces”.
Most of the events – just like wine tastings – took place indoors, with limited ventilation. Many involved the kind of embracing and cheek-pecking that’s part and parcel of so many wine trade gatherings.
Kay goes on: “High levels of noise do seem to be a common feature of SSEs, as such environments force conversationalists to speak at extremely close range.
“Three of the SSEs involved mass sports spectacles, during which fans regularly rain saliva in all directions as they communally celebrate or commiserate in response to each turn of fortune.” Perhaps the wine trade equivalent is the spittoon splashback moment. Or the slightly shouty exchanges between pourer and taster in boisterous, echoey rooms.
There are various ways in which the Covid-19 virus is thought to spread. The most important, according to Kay’s article, is the transmission of large “Flügge” droplets via coughing, sneezing and loud speaking.
Smaller droplets can travel long distances as aerosols, and their impact is not yet wholly understood. Then there are the contaminated surfaces – known as fomites – which have also been implicated.
Kay claims no expertise as an epidemiologist and acknowledges the limitations of his study.
“But even a layperson can see that there is a fairly clear pattern in the most notorious, destructive, and widely reported cases of mass Covid-19 infection,” he says, “virtually all of which feature forms of human behaviour that permit the direct ballistic delivery of a large-droplet Flüggian payload from face A to face B.
“If fomites were a major pathway for Covid-19 infection outside of hospitals, old-age residences, and homes, one would expect restaurant cooks, mass-transit ticket handlers, and FedEx delivery workers to be at the centre of major clusters. They’re not.
“If small-droplet airborne concentrations in unventilated spaces were a common vector for Covid-19 transmission (as with measles, for instance), one would expect whole office buildings to become mass-infection hot spots. That doesn’t seem to have happened.”
Kay’s article may be based on limited data and his conclusions can certainly be challenged and debated. But his argument was sufficiently well reasoned to be re-tweeted by Trisha Greenhalgh (pictured), professor of primary care at Oxford University, whose observations on the coronavirus pandemic have become required daily reading for many.
If Kay is right – and if Covid-19 is going to remain an inconvenient fact of life for the foreseeable future – then it would seem reckless for anyone to enter an environment in which almost everyone is spitting, bodies are funnelled together, voices are raised and glasses may be accidentally shared.
Compulsory face masks might solve part of the clinical problem, while creating other, more practical, difficulties for attendees. We’re meant to be sniffing and slurping, after all. And, on top of all that, there’s another concern to factor in. As far as we know, the technology does not yet exist to circumvent the wine trade’s alarming predilection for man-hugs and double kisses.