16 April 2020

Research into Canberra's wastewater could hold the key to COVID-19 transmission

| Michael Weaver
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ANU's Dr Aparna Lal standing in park with bike.

ANU researcher Dr Aparna Lal is studying Canberra’s wastewater to detect traces of the COVID-19 virus. Photo: Supplied.

The key to discovering sources of community transmission of the COVID-19 virus may lie in Canberra’s sewerage system.

A project led by ANU epidemiologist Dr Aparna Lal will begin in the ACT next week to examine whether COVID-19 is present in wastewater treatment plants.

Researchers will work with public utility company Icon Water to sample sewage at the intake point for the Lower Molonglo Water Quality Control Centre for at least the next 12 months.

Dr Lal says the research is a first-of-its-kind project and will be of national interest.

“Scientists reported finding coronavirus in Holland’s wastewater before COVID-19 cases were officially reported there,” she said.

“If we can pick up early warning of the virus in Canberra through sewage, it would provide critical information for preventative interventions and health service planning, both in the ACT and nationally.”

In Holland, a small percentage of COVID-19 patients had coronavirus in their gastrointestinal tract. The research there indicated that monitoring wastewater is a good strategy for detecting whether specific viral infections are present in a population.

Weekly wastewater samples were taken at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. Initially, the virus was not detected, however genetic material from it was found in the samples during the weeks thereafter.

Provided employees working in wastewater treatment plants follow hygiene protocols and wear protective equipment, they are protected against viral infections.

Dr Lal said, at this stage, Canberra had little or possibly no community transmission of COVID-19. However, this fact is currently unproven.

“The current focus on data from testing clinics and hospital reporting does not provide a good estimate of community transmission and won’t capture people who may be infectious, but don’t show symptoms until significantly later,” she said.

“Detection of the virus from sewage gives us the ability to monitor the circulation of the virus in the environment. This detection is an additional measure to find the trigger points that community transmission has stopped.”

Currently, transmission of COVID-19 can only be detected through patient testing or hospital reporting.

Dr Lal said the sewerage treatment research will be the first time such a study has been conducted in the ACT.

“In order to limit transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we must find out how much transmission is occurring so we can act on that information appropriately,” she said.

“Investigating control strategies will depend on finding and controlling community transmission as soon as it starts. We can do this by detecting the virus in our sewage and using this information to drive decisions about public health.”

Dr Lal stressed that our sewage systems were not a source of COVID-19 transmission.

“There is no evidence that the virus is spread through sewage,” she said. “What this study will do is let us see whether sewage could be used to continuously monitor the presence of the virus in the community even when case numbers go down.

“This work will also tell us if sewage monitoring can serve as a warning system to give us a heads up before case numbers go up.”

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