Australia’s national science agency has developed a surveillance system to analyze wastewater samples to detect COVID-19 on long-haul flights.
Researchers in Australia say wastewater testing is another line of defense against COVID-19. The country closed its borders to most foreign nationals in March 2020, and restricted entry and departure to Australian citizens to curb the spread of the virus. However, restrictions will begin to ease in November. As global travel returns, the government’s science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, or the CSIRO, believes sewage testing on incoming flights can be an effective way to screen passengers for COVID-19.
CSIRO’s Land and Water science director, Dr. Paul Bertsch, says the test is not time consuming.
“We can turn samples around in as little as four hours. But one of the things that we are working on are much more rapid methods so that we could turn around samples even faster than that. So that the analyses could actually be done while passengers are going through customs and picking up their luggage et cetera,” Bertsch said.
The study analyzed wastewater samples from lavatories of 37 Australian government repatriation flights from countries authorities categorized as COVID-hotspots, including India, France, Britain, South Africa, Canada and Germany landing at Darwin International Airport between December 2020 and March this year.
The research found that 65% of flights showed “a positive signal for the virus that causes COVID-19” despite all passengers, except children under five, testing negative to the virus 48 hours before boarding.
Dr. Bertsch believes the system could be valuable.
“The WHO (World Health Organization) continues to suggest to us that we need to be prepared for variants that perhaps are going to be even more challenging than the delta variant. We can actually detect variants in the wastewater as well, so that would also provide us a signal of when a specific variant if it does emerge somewhere in the world actually is entering Australia,” Bertsch said.
The delta variant was first identified in India and is one of several variants of concern, health experts say. The WHO uses terms such as “variants of concern” or “variants of interest” to warn against strains that might easily spread.
Australia’s health experts hope to be able to detect the virus with the study published in the scientific journal, Environmental International. The study is a collaboration between the CSIRO, Australia’s national airline Qantas and the University of Queensland.