Testing of the ACT’s sewage has confirmed the benefits of the government’s approach to containing the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts from the Australian National University (ANU) examined Canberra’s sewage water in May and found no traces of the coronavirus which causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2.
Testing sewage is a rapid and inexpensive way of tracking the coronavirus and potential community transmission.
“We tested 25 samples in May from Icon Water’s sewage treatment plant, covering the whole ACT population, and found no traces of SARS-CoV-2 RNA,” ANU environmental epidemiologist and project lead Dr Aparna Lal said.
“This coincides with the period that the ACT was declared free of any new coronavirus cases.
“These are excellent outcomes, and show the Canberra community is listening to and following health advice and that we are all working extremely hard to stop the potential spread of COVID-19.”
Chief Health Officer Dr Kerryn Coleman the results confirmed the Health Directorate’s own data.
”It doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to have high levels of testing, that’s very important to maintain, but it’s reassuring that in May they could not detect any COVID-19 virus in the wastewater,” she said.
The samples from Icon Water’s sewage treatment plant were analysed using advanced genetic testing to detect SARS-CoV-2 and a range of other viruses. While genetic material for a number of viruses was identified, indicating the test worked, no traces of SARS-CoV-2 were found in the ACT sewage system.
Dr Lal, based at the ANU Research School of Population Health, said sewage testing allowed health authorities to effectively track the potential spread of viruses like SARS-CoV-2 outside of patient testing or hospital reporting.
“This shows us that we can actively monitor the presence of SARS-CoV-2 through sewage and that based on all the samples we have processed there are no high levels of undetected community transmission in the ACT,” Dr Lal said.
The samples collected by Dr Lal were assessed in laboratories at the ANU John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR).
“As we ease social distancing measures, we will continue to monitor the ACT’s sewage on a daily basis to further support the Territory’s public health response to the pandemic,” Dr Lal said.
JCSMR Director Professor Graham Mann thanked all those involved.
“Our researchers are really pleased to be making this contribution to control of the pandemic,” he said.
Dr Pawan Parajuli, who is conducting the advanced genetic testing at JCSMR, said: “We have validated the method behind this test and shown that it can work.
“We are now optimising it to make the test more sensitive so we can recover and detect even more viruses from each sewage sample.”
The sewage program forms part of a comprehensive COVID-19 testing program at ANU employing the expertise of more than 30 researchers.