Research from the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), in conjunction with Qantas and the University of Queensland, has led to the development of wastewater surveillance on flights.
Wastewater testing of flights could support authorities’ efforts to detect COVID-19 infections and screen incoming passengers at points of entry.
CSIRO lead author Dr Warish Ahmed said as global travel returns, wastewater testing of flights may become an important tool for the early detection of COVID-19.
“It provides an extra layer of data, if there is a possible lag in viral detection in deep nasal and throat samples and if passengers are yet to show symptoms,” Ahmed said.
“The rapid on-site surveillance of wastewater at points of entry may be effective for detecting and monitoring other infectious agents that are circulating globally and provide alert to future pandemics.”
Wastewater detection on flights was the focus of a study, which analysed wastewater samples from the lavatories of 37 Australian Government repatriation flights.
These included flights from hotspots overseas such as India, France, UK, South Africa, Canada and Germany, which landed at Darwin International Airport between December 2020 and March 2021.
The research found that samples from 24 of the 37 repatriation flights showed a positive signal for the virus, despite all passengers testing negative to the virus 48 hours before boarding.
This is due to infected people shedding the virus in their faeces about two to five days before showing symptoms.
Traces of COVID can also be detected in wastewater from people who were previously infected, still shedding the virus, but are no longer infectious to others.
During 14 days of mandatory quarantine after arriving in Australia, clinical tests identified only 112 cases of COVID-19 among the 6570 passengers (1.7 per cent).
For the study, the CSIRO undertook the wastewater analysis, with input from the University of Notre Dame in the USA. Qantas designed the sampling trap with input from the University of Queensland.