COVID-safe? We now know it in our waters

Ian Bushnell 8 July 2020 9
Dr Aparna Lal

Environmental epidemiologist Dr Aparna Lal says sewage testing allowed health authorities to effectively track the potential spread of viruses like SARS-CoV2 outside of patient testing or hospital reporting. Photo: Lannon Harley/ANU.

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

Dr Pawan Parajuli in the John Curtin School of Medical Research. Testing will become even more sensitive. Photo: ANU.

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.


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9 Responses to COVID-safe? We now know it in our waters
Lynn Stape Lynn Stape 7:15 am 07 Jul 20

Yes we were safe in May... what about June after Victoria began to flare up and people from that state came here on holidays...mmm not so up to date or helpful as they are claiming sorry...

Robert Hawes Robert Hawes 6:34 am 07 Jul 20

There are no cases here. So restrictions can come off. But the moment someone with the virus comes into the ACT we need to put them back.

Acton Acton 3:14 pm 06 Jul 20

So Covid-19 doesn’t show up in water samples. It doesn’t show up in testing. It doesn’t show up on the downloaded app. And it doesn’t show up in hospital waiting rooms. The only place it does show up is in the paranoid mind of whichever ACT Government minister approved the $23m Covid19 emergency facility now sitting still empty in Garran and only used for school tours from the nearby primary school, perhaps as compensation for the kids losing their playing fields.

    chewy14 chewy14 10:34 am 07 Jul 20

    So you’ve never bought an insurance product right?

    Acton Acton 3:27 pm 07 Jul 20

    Health insurance is a ripoff designed to dupe people into paying high fees to subsidise high salaries, just like this unnecessary facility. We already have excess capacity in existing clinics and hospitals. The only beneficiaries are Aspen.

    chewy14 chewy14 5:36 pm 07 Jul 20

    Acton,
    I didn’t ask whether you had health insurance, i asked whether you have ever bought an insurance product.

    The numbers that came out of the initial modelling of COVID 19 showed that if we couldn’t reduce the spread through social distancing and lockdown measures, our hospital system would be overwhelmed within weeks.

    That risk still remains as we couldn’t keep the economy shut down to wait for a vaccine and the unknown risks of this new virus was far too great.

    The idea that it was imprudent to take the precautionary measures the government took is ridiculous.

    One look at what has occurred in other countries should dispel you of that notion. We were only successful in curtailing the spread due to almost completely shutting down our economy for weeks. Victoria is now facing another surge.

    You are saying below that most people will “get over it quickly” and that is correct.

    But if you’re one of the unlucky ones, do you really want the doctors to have to choose whether you get a bed or a ventilator due to shortages of capacity?

    You may think that the unnecessary loss of life that would occur is acceptable, but for the small cost, i think we’ve made a good investment.

    JC JC 1:01 pm 07 Jul 20

    What’s happening in Victoria now is the very reason this was sensible. We should all hope it doesn’t get used.

    Acton Acton 3:30 pm 07 Jul 20

    What’s happening in Victoria is an over reaction. You can’t isolate forever from a virus. Assume we all get it eventually and assume the vast majority recover quickly.

    JC JC 3:43 pm 07 Jul 20

    Oh and the kids didn’t loose their playing fields. The school has a play ground that isn’t part of the oval and the kids wouldn’t have “played” on their regularly anyway. And under the circumstances it is the most logical place for the temp hospital.

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