Tracking community outbreaks of COVID-19 through wastewater can happen faster, using more cost-effective tests, according to new research published by the Australian national science agency, CSIRO.


[Image appears of researchers working in a laboratory and the camera pans along the laboratory]  

Dr Warish Ahmed: Scientists are working around the clock on the COVID-19 pandemic. 

[Image changes to show a close view of a researcher wearing a hazmat suit and syringing liquid into a plastic bottle and then the image changes to show a view looking down on a waste treatment plant]

An important piece of this puzzle is the early detection of outbreaks by testing sewage. 

[Image changes to show a view looking down on wastewater treatment ponds and the camera pans over the area]

But why just test an individual when you can test an entire community?

[Image changes to show Professor Kevin Thomas talking to the camera and text appears: Professor Kevin Thomas, Director of the Queensland Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Queensland]

Professor Kevin Thomas: Together with CSIRO we’ve been working on sewage based epidemiology of SARS CoV-2 here in Brisbane Australia.

[Images move through of a close view of a researcher in a lab, a researcher filling a test tube tray with samples, a wastewater treatment plant, two workers at the plant, and a worker collecting a sample]

We’ve demonstrated the presence of viral SARS CoV-2 RNA in untreated sewage and the technique uses sewage based epidemiology to collect wastewater from the last point of collection before it is treated going into a wastewater treatment plant.

[Image changes to show a researcher putting samples into a machine and then the image changes to show Dr Warish Ahmed talking to the camera and text appears: Dr Warish Ahmed, Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO Land and Water]

Dr Warish Ahmed: After the concentration of the viruses from the sewage sample we extract RNA. 
RNA is basically a genetic fragment of the virus which carries the genetic information. 

[Images move through of a view looking at the water treatment plant and the camera pans across the plant]

It has to be noted that the traces of the viruses in the water are not infectious. 

[Image changes to show a drinking glass being filled with water from a kitchen tap]

Based on our knowledge of viruses and water, drinking water is very well protected against all viruses including the new SARS Coronavirus. 

[Images move through of a sample being collected in a plastic bottle and then the image changes to show Warish talking to the camera again]

We conducted a pilot study in Brisbane. We collected wastewater samples from two treatment plants and we were able to detect SARS Coronaviruses with the methods we have.

[Image changes to show turbid water in the waste treatment plant and then the image changes to show an aerial view of Brisbane looking over the river and the waste treatment ponds]

This was a proof of concept. It showed us that we can use untreated sewage as a surveillance tool to predict the occurrence of COVID-19 in the community. 

[Image changes to show a bridge spanning a river with high-rise buildings either side and then the image changes to show a view of people crossing the street]
 
This is a major development that is about surveillance of the spread of the virus through Australian communities. 

[Image changes to show a nurse taking a swab from a male seated in a car, and then the image changes to show a Coronavirus Update sign]

Professor Kevin Thomas: This would allow us to monitor any potential second wave of the pandemic and provide early warning of infections. 

[Images move through to show a male seated in a wheelchair looking out of a window, elderly people doing exercises in a park, an aerial view of a dry landscape, and the sun shining through a prison fence]

This could be a valuable approach for vulnerable populations such as those in aged care facilities, remote communities and those in correctional centres. 

[Images move through to show a Qantas plane on the runway, a view looking at the side of a cruise ship, and then a view looking down on many people sunbathing on the sundeck of a cruise ship]

We’ve also been testing sewage samples from aircraft and cruise ships which is helping transport industries to continue their operations.

[Image changes to show an aerial view of the wastewater in the sewage treatment plant, and then the image changes to show Ahmed working with a machine in a lab]

Our research shows that Australia has the capability to deliver timely COVID-19 sewage surveillance data and support decisions on public health interventions in response to the disease outbreak.

[Image changes to show a researcher pouring and then labelling a sample in the laboratory]

We’re very keen to share this new knowledge and our methods nationally, internationally. 

[Music plays and the image changes to show a white screen with The University of Queensland, CSIRO and Urban Utilities logos and text: We thank Urban Utilities for providing footage for this film]



Australian researchers trace sewage for early warning COVID-19 spread

Additional Resources

The new research builds on the world's first peer-reviewed proof-of-concept trial run in Brisbane by CSIRO and The University of Queensland which tested untreated wastewater and found fragments of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Scientists have now refined their methods of concentrating and recovering the virus from wastewater samples, which can indicate the presence of COVID-19 carriers in the community, regardless of whether they show symptoms.

Seven methods were tested in the latest study, confirming the most cost-effective and rapid virus recovery process which extracts virus information from wastewater, so it can be tested, with each sample now taking between 15 to 30 minutes to process.

Worldwide wastewater monitoring could save up to USD$1 Billion for national monitoring programs depending on frequency of sampling and population, according to research . Wastewater monitoring has been shown to be significantly cheaper and faster than clinical screening for COVID-19, but would be used as an added diagnostic measure.

CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall said that as COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease, science has found a way to help individual communities avoid a second wave of the pandemic.

"This unique monitoring breakthrough will ensure each suburb gets the medical support it needs so all of us, as a nation, can stay healthier," Dr Marshall said.

CSIRO researcher Dr Warish Ahmed led the findings published in The Science of the Total Environment, which evaluated the concentration, recovery and detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA (its genetic code).

"We will keep refining the virus concentration and detection methods to provide more sensitive and accurate results of the viral load in wastewater," Dr Ahmed said.

"This will provide information on the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community so public health officials can have as much information as possible to manage an outbreak in a timely manner."

The results will be shared with a new global scientific collaboration, COVID-19 WBE Collaborative, which brings together more than 50 global experts in water-based epidemiology (WBE) to share testing methods and data on wastewater-based surveillance for the current and future disease outbreaks.

The wastewater testing is conducted on untreated sewage, collected as it enters a wastewater treatment plant to provide community-level results.

Based on our knowledge of the persistence of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater, drinking water is very well protected against all viruses , including the new coronavirus.

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Images

  • A person stands beside a big pool of water

    Testing underway at a wastewater treatment plant

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  • Scientist in PPE in lab

    Dr Warish Ahmed in his CSIRO laboratory at Brisbane’s Ecosciences precinct  ©

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  • Infographic  showing cycle between testing for COVID and identifying outbreaks

    In wastewater-based epidemiology, the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 infections in a community can be estimated by analysing the virus RNA in that community’s sewage. This information can then inform public health responses to the outbreak.

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