Suitability of aircraft wastewater for pathogen detection and public health surveillance

Jones, Davey L.; Rhymes, Jennifer M.; Wade, Matthew J.; Kevill, Jessica L.; Malham, Shelagh K.; Grimsley, Jasmine M.S.; Rimmer, Charlotte; Weightman, Andrew J.; Farkas, Kata. 2023 Suitability of aircraft wastewater for pathogen detection and public health surveillance. Science of the Total Environment, 856 (2), 159162. 9, pp.

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International air travel is now widely recognised as one of the primary mechanisms responsible for the transnational movement and global spread of SARS-CoV-2. Monitoring the viral load and novel lineages within human-derived wastewater collected from aircraft and at air transport hubs has been proposed as an effective way to monitor the importation frequency of viral pathogens. The success of this approach, however, is highly dependent on the bathroom and defecation habits of air passengers during their journey. In this study of UK adults (n = 2103), we quantified the likelihood of defecation prior to departure, on the aircraft and upon arrival on both short- and long-haul flights. The results were then used to assess the likelihood of capturing the signal from infected individuals at UK travel hubs. To obtain a representative cross-section of the population, the survey was stratified by geographical region, gender, age, parenting status, and social class. We found that an individual's likelihood to defecate on short-haul flights (< 6 h in duration) was low (< 13 % of the total), but was higher on long-haul flights (< 36 %; > 6 h in duration). This behaviour pattern was higher among males and younger age groups. The maximum likelihood of defecation was prior to departure (< 39 %). Based on known SARS-CoV-2 faecal shedding rates (30–60 %) and an equal probability of infected individuals being on short- (71 % of inbound flights) and long-haul flights (29 %), we estimate that aircraft wastewater is likely to capture ca. 8–14 % of SARS-CoV-2 cases entering the UK. Monte Carlo simulations predicted that SARS-CoV-2 would be present in wastewater on 14 % of short-haul flights and 62 % of long-haul flights under current pandemic conditions. We conclude that aircraft wastewater alone is insufficient to effectively monitor all the transboundary entries of faecal-borne pathogens but can form part of a wider strategy for public heath surveillance at national borders.

Item Type: Publication - Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
UKCEH and CEH Sections/Science Areas: Soils and Land Use (Science Area 2017-)
ISSN: 0048-9697
Additional Information. Not used in RCUK Gateway to Research.: Open Access paper - full text available via Official URL link.
Additional Keywords: public health surveillance, international air travel, SARS-CoV-2, wastewater-based epidemiology
NORA Subject Terms: Health
Date made live: 09 Nov 2022 17:43 +0 (UTC)

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