Cooler winds are beginning to blow and the pests of the summer are disappearing as shorter days and longer nights make way for a different kind of bug – the kind that land you in bed for several days with a headache, fever and other dreaded flu-like symptoms. The culprit? Norovirus. Also known as the winter vomiting bug, it’s the leading cause of acute gastroenteritis worldwide, and according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there are approximately 20 million cases in the United States annually.

Norovirus travels quickly, spreads easily and its effects can be felt within hours. In recent years, its name and symptoms have grown in global notoriety due to large outbreaks linked to cruise ships and well-known restaurants. While the sickness has become a household name, research on the virus has been limited.

Since 2011, scientists and stakeholders from 18 institutions — including Clemson, North Carolina State (NCSU) and Emory universities, the CDC and Food and Drug Administration — have been trying to change that with the help of a $25 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The multidisciplinary team, known as the Norovirus Collaborative for Outreach, Research, and Education (NoroCORE), was brought together by lead investigator and NCSU professor Lee-Ann Jaykus. Together, they’ve been seeking ways to develop improved tools and the capacity to understand and control foodborne virus risks.

Jaykus says she knew who she wanted to work with when first applying for the USDA grant.

“As a Coordinated Agricultural Project (CAP), at least one-third of the NoroCORE work was to focus on extension and outreach,” said Jaykus. “I have worked with Angie for almost 20 years and she was the logical choice to lead those efforts. Angie has fantastic expertise, a wide stakeholder network, and always gets the job done. Plus, she is a terrific team member and a lot of fun to work with!”

Of the $25 million grant, Clemson received $2.5 million. Fraser, an associate professor in the College of Agriculture Forestry and Life Sciences’ food, nutrition and packaging sciences department, led Clemson’s research efforts with food microbiology professor Xiuping Jiang, and two microbiology students who worked on the project as part of their graduate studies: Thomas Yergin (M.S. ’14) and David Buckley (Ph.D. ’16).

Electron micrograph provides a close-up view of norovirus particles.

This electron micrograph provides a close-up view of norovirus particles. The virus is most often passed between people by close personal contact. Consuming contaminated foods is the second most common way it is spread.
Image Credit: CDC

Fraser’s team began investigating the presence of and solutions for viruses in foodservice facilities, but quickly saw a larger problem: the information about how long the virus lives on soft surfaces, like carpets and upholstery, and how to disinfect them was minimal. After speaking with NoroCORE partners Jeff Anderson, a public health and sanitation scientist at Procter & Gamble (P&G) and Charles “Chuck” Pettigrew, a principal scientist at P&G and Clemson adjunct professor, they realized the need to better understand soft surfaces and strategies to disinfect them.

Carpet woes

When individuals fall prey to the norovirus they can become ill with symptoms associated with the flu. It’s known that bodily excrements likely have infectious material in them, but not how the virus reacts depending on the surface it’s on or how long it lives.

“Norovirus commonly spreads by ingesting contaminated foods, but surfaces are a culprit that shouldn’t be overlooked, especially because the virus is aerosolized, meaning that when it gets into the air it travels easily,” said Fraser. “It was evident early on that there is a limited amount of research available on cleaning processes and even more so for soft surfaces. After speaking with Chuck about the issue, we saw an opportunity to work with P&G to provide needed research to help them develop soft surface-cleaning products and procedures.”

Through initial research, the team was able to show that carpets are effective carriers in norovirus transmissions.

“There are so many places that are susceptible to the norovirus – think of carpets in large cruise ships, restaurants, hotels and even homes. You can’t simply replace the carpet, you need to be able to clean it properly,” said Jiang. “Now, we have research that shows carpets serve as an incubator for viruses and our partners at P&G will be able to take our research and apply it to product development.”

Current protocol for cleaning suggests using heat and bleach – two things that can be hard on carpets and potentially ruin them. For businesses, and even individuals at home, these options aren’t always viable.

Buckley’s Ph.D. research focused on noroviruses. He found it fascinating that soft surfaces had been understudied and that there are currently no recognized sanitizers or disinfectants intended for them.

“I was able to see how carpets transferred and transmitted viruses,” said Buckley. “We’ve been able to provide evidence of the norovirus’ survival and have helped adapt ASTM International’s standards for assessing sanitizers for contaminated carpets.”

The power of partners

ASTM International, formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, is an organization composed of global experts who create consensus and improve performance in manufacturing and materials, products and processes, systems and services. Pettigrew, who was familiar with ASTM, encouraged Buckley to present to the organization.

By working with ASTM International, Buckley also learned about a $10,000 grant that would assist with his research. He applied and was one of three students to receive the award internationally.

Anderson and Pettigrew’s involvement with NoroCORE created additional opportunities for Buckley and Yergin.

“Jeff and Chuck have been a driving force,” said Jiang. “As our partner, they’ve provided great support for this research and also sponsored internships for David and Thomas at P&G where they learned about how the industry works as it relates to their research area.”

Buckley was a visiting scientist at P&G during the summer of ‘15 and ‘16.

“NoroCORE was probably the best parts of my graduate experience but the opportunity to work at P&G was incredibly beneficial,” Buckley said. “I think the biggest takeaway that I applied to my research was developing a better experimental design and thinking about everything that could go wrong. I truly learned how to become my own devil’s advocate.”

Buckley believes that the collaborative mentality of NoroCORE has been a huge factor in its success and that it has helped develop new students and the next generation of virologists.

While it may be several years until consumers have their hands on a product as a result of this research, P&G has already started applying the science.

“We’ve been able to take the research from NoroCORE, and specifically Clemson, and have started applying it to our business,” said Pettigrew. “For example, we’ve learned how long the norovirus exists on surfaces and what products are doing a better job controlling it. Now, we use that knowledge and share it with customers from our away-from-home division, P&G Professional, so they can do a better job at keeping facilities clean.”

Fraser and Pettigrew have also participated in educational sessions through P&G directed at directors, managers and employees from the healthcare, hospitality and food service industries to show them techniques for handling and norovirus outbreak and preventing future outbreaks.

Staying healthy at home

This winter, take precautionary measures to help avoid the norovirus at home. The CDC says:

  • Remember, you are most contagious when you are sick and the first few days after recovering.
  • Make sure to wash your hands and carefully wash all fruits and vegetables.
  • When you’re sick, do not prepare foods.
  • Clean and disinfect contaminated surfaces and laundry thoroughly and immediately.