Environment International (Jan 2022)

Wastewater surveillance demonstrates high predictive value for COVID-19 infection on board repatriation flights to Australia

  • Warish Ahmed,
  • Aaron Bivins,
  • Stuart L. Simpson,
  • Paul M. Bertsch,
  • John Ehret,
  • Ian Hosegood,
  • Suzanne S. Metcalfe,
  • Wendy J.M. Smith,
  • Kevin V. Thomas,
  • Josh Tynan,
  • Jochen F. Mueller

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 158
p. 106938


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Controlling importation and transmission of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) from overseas travelers is essential for countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, and other island nations, that have adopted a suppression strategy to manage very low community transmission. Wastewater surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 RNA has emerged as a promising tool employed in public health response in many countries globally. This study aimed to establish whether the surveillance of aircraft wastewater can be used to provide an additional layer of information to augment individual clinical testing. Wastewater from 37 long-haul flights chartered to repatriate Australians was tested for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA. Children 5 years or older on these flights tested negative for coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19) (deep nasal and oropharyngeal reverse-transcription (RT)-PCR swab) 48 h before departure. All passengers underwent mandatory quarantine for 14-day post arrival in Howard Springs, NT, Australia. Wastewater from 24 (64.9 %) of the 37 flights tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 RNA. During the 14 day mandatory quarantine, clinical testing identified 112 cases of COVID-19. Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 RNA in repatriation flight wastewater using pooled results from three RT-qPCR assays demonstrated a positive predictive value (PPV) of 87.5 %, a negative predictive value (NPV) of 76.9 % and 83.7% accuracy for COVID-19 cases during the post-arrival 14-day quarantine period. The study successfully demonstrates that the surveillance of wastewater from aircraft for SARS-CoV-2 can provide an additional and effective tool for informing the management of returning overseas travelers and for monitoring the importation of SARS CoV-2 and other clinically significant pathogens.