Sewers swept for virus data
Every flush of the toilet could soon play a role in tracking and stemming the spread of COVID-19.
Australia's sewage will soon be monitored for the presence of coronavirus, with experts going through effluent for early warning signs of future outbreaks.
Health Minister Greg Hunt says that by keeping track of levels of coronavirus in sewage, governments can quickly adjust their response.
“If there's a suburb that hasn't had a case identified but it is in the wastewater stream, then we realise we need to focus on that suburb to find the people,” he said.
In a recent pilot project, Professor Kevin Thomas was able to detect traces of SARS-COV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — in excrement.
Professor Thomas says the process begins with scientists taking samples of effluent at the intake points of wastewater treatment plants in different catchment areas.
“It is essentially dispersed solid in a predominately liquid sample,” he told reporters.
They are then able to filter out RNA from the sample, and track down the specific genetic code that tells them if SARS-COV-2 is present.
Studies have shown people shed or excrete COVID-19 viral material two to three days before they get symptoms.
This mean governments could identify COVID-19 hotspots before the people infected even realise they are sick.
“It provides government with an additional tool to go to and in its simplest form it can tell us if COVID-19 has infected a community or not,” Professor Thomas said.
“This provides an integrative community-level measurement, as opposed to individual testing that has been used so far.”
Sewerage is already a source of significant health information in Australia.
It is an established way of surveying the use of illegal drugs and antibiotics in the community, and has been used to measure viruses (like the ones that cause polio) in the past.
Water Research Australia (WaterRA) with the support of the Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA) will lead the innovative, Australia-wide investigation.