Are airplane lavatories the key to tracking COVID-19’s emerging variants?

A recent article published in The Atlantic spoke of how the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the US is using airplane lavatories as data treasure troves to track the evolution of COVID-19. Yes, you read that correctly. 

Small traces of many pathogens, such as viruses usually come out with everything else when we empty ourselves. 

The same approach has been used in the State of Victoria has been conducting wastewater surveillance – which has used these results from arriving airplanes alongside testing, vaccines, case information and other health data, in its COVID response efforts. It detected the presence of Omicron’s BA variants, well before they started surging through the population. 

The same principles are being applied to track how emerging variants of COVID-19 are crossing borders and entering countries, now that international travel is back in full swing. 

Wastewater-based epidemiology – a public health game changer

The testing of aircraft lavatories forms part of a field of science called wastewater-based epidemiology and it may be a way to track the spread of COVID-19 across the world via airports. It’s also relatively simple, inexpensive, and, most importantly, provides a useful snapshot of the health of a whole community (not only those people who seek medical help). 

Wastewater-based epidemiology has been used for the early detection of poliovirus for decades, and it has been implemented to monitor SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) in more than 70 countries since the start of the pandemic. Wastewater surveillance allows us to not only track when SARS-CoV-2 is present, but it can identify different variants of the virus too.

Making the most of wastewater surveillance

Wastewater testing can provide different information depending on where samples are collected. Those from an airport, dormitory, or long-term care facility, for instance, might offer more granular insight than broader, communitywide testing.

Airplane-wastewater testing is supposedly set to revolutionise how we track COVID’s continued mutations around the world, along with other common viruses such as flu and RSV. Perhaps even public-health threats that we don’t even know about yet. Unlike wastewater surveillance of sewage, which shows us how diseases are spreading among large communities, airplane surveillance is precisely targeted to catch new variants entering the country from abroad. And unlike with PCR testing, passengers don’t have to individually opt-in to the testing.

Opinions or facts expressed within the content have been sourced from various news sources. While every effort has been taken to source them accurately, the pharmacy, its owners, staff or other affiliates do not take any responsibility for errors in these sources. Patients should not rely on the facts or opinions in the content to manage their own health, and should seek the advice of an appropriate medical professional. Further, the opinions or facts in the content do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the pharmacy, its owners, staff or other affiliates. 

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