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September–November 2020

Tracking COVID-19 in plane and cruise ship wastewater

As Australia considers how to safely welcome international visitors again, testing wastewater systems on long-haul planes and cruise ships could provide crucial information on detecting the presence of the COVID-19 virus in incoming passengers.

A paper in the Journal of Travel Medicine reported 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, a step forward in using this test as an additional public health management tool (

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

CSIRO Chief Executive Larry Marshall said rapidly pinpointing hotspots for COVID-19 will help keep all Australians safe as we start to travel again.

‘Responding to a pandemic is not just about the race for a vaccine, Australian science is supporting our economic recovery by delivering for partners like Qantas’, Marshall said.

Paper co-author and Professor Jochen Mueller from the Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences (University of Queensland) said this tool could help as governments and transport industries develop plans to minimise transmission associated with resuming international travel.

‘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 said.

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

Lead author and CSIRO researcher Warish Ahmed said the virus fragments in the wastewater were unviable, so not infectious.

‘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,’ Ahmed said.

Dr Warish Ahmed in his CSIRO laboratory at Brisbane’s Ecosciences precinct.

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