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.

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.

An infographic displays the timeline of the sewage testing process, from day one to day 14.

Monitoring sewage for early detection of COVID-19 outbreaks

DAY 1

People within a wastewater treatment catchment, or facility such as an aged care home, are exposed to SARS-CoV-2.

DAY 2-3

Infected people begin shedding the virus in faeces, whether or not they show symptoms such as fever or a cough.

DAY 3-4

Samples are collected for analysis from wastewater entering pipe networks, pumping stations or wastewater treatment plants.

DAY 4

The wastewater sample is concentrated. Fragments of the virus’s genetic code are then extracted and genetically analysed.

DAY 4-6

Detection and quantification of the virus genetic materials are reported to public health officials to support early intervention measures.

Genetic fragments of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 are found in the faeces of infected people.

These fragments, as RNA, can be collected from the wastewater to detect the virus even before symptoms appear.

Researchers are refining wastewater testing for sewage surveillance to support public health management of the pandemic.

This tool can be used in municipal wastewater treatment plants, and facilities such as aged care homes or cruise ships, to give an early warning of the disease through faeces flushed into wastewater systems.

DAY 5-14

People who begin to show symptoms undergo a clinical nasal swab test.

This timeline provides a guide to the COVID-19 sewage testing process.

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