Environmental swabs as a tool in norovirus outbreak investigation, including outbreaks on cruise ships

J Food Prot. 2009 Jan;72(1):111-9. doi: 10.4315/0362-028x-72.1.111.


In this study, we investigated whether environmental swabs can be used to demonstrate the presence of norovirus in outbreak settings. First, a procedure was set up based on viral RNA extraction using guanidium isothiocyanate buffer and binding of nucleic acids to silica. Subsequently, environmental swabs were taken at 23 Dutch restaurants and four cruise ships involved in outbreaks of gastroenteritis. Outbreaks were selected based on clinical symptoms consistent with viral gastroenteritis and time between consumption of suspected food and onset of clinical symptoms (>12 h). Norovirus RNA was demonstrated by real-time reverse transcriptase PCR in 51 of 86 (59%) clinical specimens from 12 of 14 outbreaks (86%), in 13 of 90 (14%) food specimens from 4 of 18 outbreaks (22%), and in 48 of 119 (40%) swab specimens taken from 14 of 27 outbreaks (52%). Positive swab samples agreed with positive clinical samples in seven outbreaks, showing identical sequences. Furthermore, norovirus was detected on swabs taken from kitchen and bathroom surfaces in five outbreaks in which no clinical samples were collected and two outbreaks with negative fecal samples. The detection rate was highest for outbreaks associated with catered meals and lowest for restaurant-associated outbreaks. The use of environmental swabs may be a useful tool in addition to testing of food and clinical specimens, particularlywhen viral RNA is detected on surfaces used for food preparation.

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease / epidemiology
  • Caliciviridae Infections / epidemiology*
  • Disease Outbreaks
  • Environmental Microbiology*
  • Feces / virology
  • Food Contamination / analysis*
  • Food Services
  • Gastroenteritis / epidemiology*
  • Humans
  • Norovirus / growth & development*
  • Norovirus / isolation & purification
  • Norovirus / pathogenicity
  • RNA, Viral / analysis
  • Restaurants
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction / methods
  • Ships
  • Travel


  • RNA, Viral