Ever pondered what goes on behind the scenes of a plane’s toilet? Well in uncertain times, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) checks the poop for COVID.
The CSIRO on Monday said it has analysed wastewater samples from long haul flights of returning Australians. They said the plane poop proves signals of the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be detected even before passengers show symptoms.
Scientists, working with Qantas and The University of Queensland, have demonstrated that wastewater surveillance can provide valuable data for public health agencies as Australia starts reopening to the world.
The teams analysed wastewater samples from lavatories of 37 Australian government repatriation flights from COVID-hotspots including India, France, UK, South Africa, Canada and Germany landing at Darwin International Airport between December 2020 and March this year.
The research found wastewater samples from 24 of the 37 repatriation flights (65 per cent) showed a positive signal for the virus that causes COVID-19 despite all passengers (except children under age five) testing negative to the virus 48 hours before boarding.
Infected people shed the virus in their poop about two to five days before showing symptoms, the CSIRO explains. 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 (although this is typically a weaker signal).
There was 87.5 per cent agreement between the positive detections by surveillance of the plane poop.
“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,” CSIRO’s Dr Warish 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.”
The work has today been published in Environment International.