CSIRO study finds way to detect COVID-19 early from flights

By Jackson Graham

Tuesday October 19, 2021

As global travel returns, government scientists have found a way to test the wastewater of flights for COVID-19. 
As global travel returns, government scientists have found a way to test the wastewater of flights for COVID-19.  (aapsky/Adobe)

As global travel returns, government scientists have found a way to test the wastewater of flights for COVID-19. 

A CSIRO study of repatriation flights was the first time researchers have matched plane wastewater testing with follow-up clinical data testing passengers in quarantine. 

It found more than half of 37 repatriation flights from coronavirus hotspots worldwide landing in Darwin International Airport showed positive signals for the virus. 

This was despite all passengers except young children testing negative to the virus 48 hours before boarding and tests in mandatory quarantine identifying only 112 cases of the 6570 passengers. 

The study found an 87% correlation between surveillance of the wastewater and the subsequent clinical detections made during the passengers’ quarantine.

CSIRO lead author Dr Warish Ahmed said the wastewater detection provided additional data that could be useful when there was a lag in testing or onset of symptoms. 

“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,” Ahmed said of the research. 

The study, published in Environment International, builds on work from an earlier paper published in the Journal of Travel Medicine in July 2020, which detected fragments of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in aircraft and cruise ships. 

It points out that wastewater testing from aircraft and cruise ships offers a cost-effective means that could be introduced on a global scale to monitor for infectious agents and the importation of disease. 

The study also collaborated with Qantas and the University of Queensland, where Professor Jochen Mueller said the surveillance could be used rapidly at points of entry into countries. 

“[It] may be effective for detecting and monitoring other infectious agents that are circulating globally and provide alert to future pandemics,” Mueller said. 

International flights to and from NSW are due to recommence from November. From Tuesday, flights to and from New Zealand’s South Island will also resume.


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