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Wednesday, May 12, 2021
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Tracking COVID-19 in wastewater a step toward early warning system

Australian researchers have achieved the first step in developing an early warning surveillance system to track COVID-19 prevalence in the community through tracing the presence of the novel coronavirus gene in raw sewage.

Researchers from The University of Queensland (UQ) and Australia’s national science agency CSIRO have successfully demonstrated the presence of SARS-CoV2, the virus which leads to the disease COVID-19, in Australian untreated wastewater (sewage).

A proof of concept study was completed last week, using wastewater samples from two wastewater treatment plants in South East Queensland, representing populations living in the Brisbane region.

UQ and CSIRO researchers found RNA fragments of SARS-CoV2 in untreated sewage which would have been shed in the wastewater stream by COVID-19 infected people.

Director of UQ’s Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences, Professor Kevin Thomas, said the validated method built on work by research groups in the Netherlands and the USA.

It is a major development that enables surveillance of the spread of the virus through Australian communities and, according to CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall, the testing would help manage COVID-19.

“The hope is eventually we will be able to not just detect the geographic regions where COVID-19 is present, but the approximate number of people infected – without testing every individual in a location. This will give the public a better sense of how well we are containing this pandemic,” Dr Marshall said.

Wastewater surveillance data could be used to inform decisions, response actions and public communications. According to CSIRO Land and Water Science Director, Dr Paul Bertsch, this “will be particularly useful for catchments with vulnerable populations where testing using other methods may not be feasible”.

“An early warning detection system like this would also be incredibly useful for monitoring and response in the recovery phase.”

The team is keen to share the new knowledge and methods to develop a national collaboration of government authorities, wastewater utilities, universities and other research organisations and commercial laboratories.

“The next step is to build the capacity to deliver a national program,” Professor Thomas said.

The research used systematic sampling and analysis of wastewater for SARS-CoV2 using a standardised, coordinated approach based on refined analytical methods.

“The wastewater samples were analysed for specific nucleic acid fragments of the virus using RT-PCR analysis, which is used to identify a gene fragment from SARS-CoV2,” Professor Thomas said.

“The presence of SARS-CoV2 in specific wastewater samples was then confirmed using sequencing techniques.”

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