New test tracks COVID-19 in wastewater from plane and cruise ship passengers

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  Last updated July 17, 2020 at 11:24 am


A new wastewater test can detect whether people on board planes and cruise ships are infected with COVID-19, even if they’re not showing symptoms yet.

tracking covid-19_covid-19 in wastewater_Wastewater run off

The virus fragments in the wastewater were not infectious. Credit: aquatarkus / Getty Images

Why This Matters: Keeping Australia safe while we get back on our feet is critical.

As Australia considers how to safely welcome international visitors again, testing wastewater systems on long-haul planes and cruise ships may assist researchers in detecting COVID-19 in incoming visitors.

A new paper in the Journal of Travel Medicine reports that testing of aircraft and cruise ship wastewater upon arriving at their destination had detected genetic fragments of the COVID-19 virus, SARS-CoV-2.

They say that testing the wastewater could be an additional data source for testing and managing passengers after disembarkation.

While the viral fragments detected weren’t infectious themselves, they may indicate infected people are on board even in the absence of symptoms.

Researchers from The University of Queensland and CSIRO worked with transport companies to test on-board wastewater from lavatories.

An additional tool in tracking COVID-19

Professor Jochen Mueller from UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences was one of the researchers involved in the study. He says the test could help as governments and transport industries develop plans to minimise transmission associated with resuming international travel.

Also: The race in on around the world for a COVID-19 vaccine

“This could provide additional peace of mind to track and manage infection and play an important role in opening up long-haul flights or cruises resuming,” Mueller says.

The test provides an early warning system for infections, as the virus sheds in the stools of infected passengers even before they show symptoms.

“The study indicates that surveillance of wastewater from large transport vessels with their own sanitation systems has potential as a parallel data source to prioritise clinical testing among disembarking passengers,” says CSIRO researcher Warish Ahmed, who led the project.

Another piece of the COVID-19 puzzle

Minister for Industry, Science and Technology Karen Andrews says the ability to test wastewater will make a difference in the fight against coronavirus.

Also: COVID-19 pandemic: Where to from here?

“Our science and research communities are among our greatest assets in our efforts to not only overcome this pandemic, but also to assist in the economic recovery from COVID-19,” Andrews says.

“The ability to test wastewater from planes and cruise ships is another piece of the puzzle as we look to the future of travel and keeping Australians safe.”

CSIRO Chief Executive Larry Marshall says rapidly pinpointing hotspots for COVID-19 would help keep all Australians safe as we started to travel again.

“Responding to a pandemic is not just about the race for a vaccine.”

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