LSU CEE Professor Bivins Studying Wastewater on International Flights

January 31, 2022

Image of Assistant Professor Aaron BivinsWith the COVID-19 Omicron variant spreading like wildfire, testing has never been more important. This is why LSU Civil & Environmental Engineering Assistant Professor Aaron Bivins is not only researching pathogen detection in water at LSU but also joining forces with researchers worldwide, namely Australia, to study wastewater on international flights.

Before joining LSU earlier this year, Bivins researched waterborne pathogen detection in surface and drinking water and planned to study antibiotic resistance in the environment while at the University of Notre Dame. Then the pandemic hit in early 2020, which prompted Bivins to co-found the COVID-19 Wastewater-based Epidemiology Collaborative, a group that now has 1,200 members around the globe.  

“I just tried to get people together to share methods and approaches because at first, everyone was trying to figure out how we were going to measure this virus in wastewater,” Bivins said. “That’s how I met my collaborators in Australia.”

In 2020, many cruise ships around the world were forced to dock because of passengers being sick with COVID-19. When one ship docked in Australia, Bivins suggested his Australian collaborators collect wastewater from it. They then realized that they could also test wastewater on planes.

“In our first paper, we collected wastewater samples from three different flights into Australia and from a cruise ship,” Bivins said. “We were able to detect the virus RNA in the samples.”

In a second paper, Bivins and his colleagues were able to link wastewater samples with future development of COVID-19 among passengers during quarantine.

Bivins noted, “The plane passengers had all been tested prior to boarding, and all of them (1,600 total) all tested negative, so they were allowed to fly home to Australia. During the two-week quarantine period that is required by Australia for returning citizens, 112 developed COVID.”

What Bivins and his collaborators found was that the wastewater they had collected from the flights was about 85% accurate in predicting those future COVID cases. Of the 112 passengers who contracted COVID, 105 were associated with the positive wastewater samples collected. That left only seven cases corresponding with negative samples.

“There’s the impression that the clinical testing is perfect, and it’s not necessarily,” he said. “You could imagine a system where people test negative, board an international flight, come to the U.S., and go about their business because there is no mandatory quarantine period after a flight.”

Bivins proposes testing the aircraft wastewater as it’s being pumped out while the passengers exit the plane, and ideally, have a testing lab at the airport.

His team has been working with Qantus Airlines in Australia. The airline has already designed a special piece of sampling equipment that allows it to collect the wastewater sample directly from the plane as part of its routine flushing of the wastewater.

“Qantus has been great to work with,” Bivins said. “It’s been really nice for us because their sampling equipment keeps the process safe and efficient. We could probably get the wastewater testing time down to a few hours, and if the wastewater tests positive, the airlines could send a notification to the passengers recommending a COVID test since they already have the passengers’ email addresses and contact information.”

“There are tradeoffs in the U.S.,” Bivins added. “We want people to have autonomy to decide what’s best for them, but realistically, no one is going around making people isolate. Someone can test positive and go out and do whatever they want. So, our research won’t necessarily create control, but it helps travelers make informed choices.”

One wastewater team in San Diego, led by a former colleague of Bivins, said when it tested wastewater in schools and posted that information publicly, the number of parents having their children tested jumped from 30% to 85%.

“People do seem to respond to the wastewater results when they know about them,” Bivins said. “I think most people are good people and want to do their part. It also depends on if they can get tested and how long that will take.”

While Bivins acknowledges not every international flight can be tested, he said randomly selecting a few hundred each day could make a difference. He also said another big constraint is not being able to get reliable results from a domestic flight since passengers are less likely to use the lavatory during flights of shorter duration.

“The idea would be that eventually we could use international flights to monitor what’s been in and out of the country in terms of antibiotic resistance and other pathogens,” Bivins said. “We probably can’t control their movement, but we can at least be aware of what’s coming and going and how these microorganisms move about the world.”

In the meantime, Bivins is working with LSU CEE Professor John Pardue and LSU Vet Med Professor Konstantin Kousoulas to study wastewater in Louisiana and determine how he can contribute to the work that is already being done. He hopes that wastewater will eventually be able to help detect outbreaks of the flu or norovirus on LSU’s campus.

“As long as there have been human beings, there have been pathogens,” he said. “I think the idea would be that we can use wastewater to make better public health decisions.”

To learn more about Bivins’ COVID-19 WBE Collaborative, visit

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Contact: Libby Haydel
Communication Specialist