Australian researchers have achieved the first step in developing an early warning surveillance system to track COVID-19 prevalence in the community through tracing the presence of the novel coronavirus gene in raw sewage.

Researchers from The University of Queensland (UQ) and Australia’s national science agency CSIRO have completed a proof of concept study in early April using wastewater samples from two wastewater treatment plants in South East Queensland, representing populations living in the Brisbane region.

The next step is to build the capacity on a national scale to develop an early warning system to track the incidence of outbreaks in geographic regions, and to monitor and respond in the recovery phase.

Dr Warish Ahmed, CSIRO Land and Water.

The researchers collected samples from the inflow to the wastewater treatment plants. The samples from the two wastewater treatment plants tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.

This method could help us detect not just where COVID-19 is present, but the approximate number of people infected. And it can be done without testing every individual in a location. This will give us a better sense of how well we are containing this pandemic.

We hope to develop an Australia-wide surveillance program to leverage our national network of scientific expertise.

This project demonstrates Australia has the capability to deliver timely COVID-19 wastewater surveillance data. It can help inform decisions, inform response actions and assist public communications.

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