Published 01-10-2020
| Article appears in October 2020 Issue

Early-warning tool in sewage key to asymptomatic COVID-19


Scientists of a joint CSIRO-University of Queensland team have uncovered a method for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to be detected in sewage samples.

 The analysis is accurate enough to detect the presence of the virus days before positive cases are observed in public screening programs.

 According to CSIRO member Dr Paul Bertsch, this virus detection within our pollution is a critical element of public health response.

 “We use filtration techniques to separate out the nano-scale viral and gene fragments from untreated wastewater, then ‘amplify’ the fragments, enabling us to isolate and confirm the virus’s fingerprint over any other genetic material present in the sample," Dr Bertsch said.

 The team began sampling wastewater from treatment plants in Brisbane earlier this year, amid the first wave of COVID-19 in Australia.

 Dr Borsch says that while the wastewater sampling cannot fully replace individual sampling, it can provide unique information into people who are carrying the virus but are also asymptomatic.

 “Many experts say we’re a long way from having a vaccine.”

 “So a national wastewater surveillance program or network could help Australian authorities detect and contain emerging COVID-19 clusters faster and more cost-effectively.”

 The testing of wastewater could also be highly beneficial for people travelling on cruise ships, preventing any sick passengers from disembarking.

“Scientists, disease ecologists, and epidemiologists have been predicting the emergence of other pandemics following the SARS and MERS outbreaks earlier this century.”

 “We need to prepare for future pandemics. The economics of permanent sewage surveillance stacks up.”

 He says it doesn’t take much to close down entire economies from a pandemic breakout.

 Meanwhile, with the latest update from the state of Victoria, 13 new coronavirus cases were recorded overnight with another four people losing their lives.

 Premier Daniel Andrews has announced that workers in high-risk industries will be asked to participate in a new Surveillance Testing Program in a bid to stamp out any new coronavirus outbreaks.

Starting with the food production sector, the new program will test 25 percent of staff in high-risk workplaces each week.

Those among the supermarket, refrigerated, meat, poultry and seafood processing and distribution sectors will be asked to have a quarter of their staff tested on a week by week basis.


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