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16 October 2020 6 min read

It's hard to miss the impact of COVID-19 on our lives. But our scientists are hard at work tackling this deadly pandemic.

We've analysed the genome of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. We've opened the first accredited face mask testing facility for single-use surgical face masks in Australia. And we're testing the efficacy of the two vaccine candidates outlined by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

But we are also researching ways to understand how the virus spreads. And it involves looking at the brown you flush down.

Dr Warish Ahmed is leading the team analysing wastewater samples. His work tracks the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in the community. He is currently analysing wastewater samples for Queensland Health's pilot wastewater monitoring, which is being done at many locations across Queensland. He gives us the low down on how this research can help us tackle the virus spread faster.

Warish also tells us how he started working on this research. Spoiler alert: it involves talking to scientists on Twitter!

Why is wastewater testing so important?

We're working with The University of Queensland to test wastewater for SARS-CoV-2. But why is it so important?

People infected with COVID-19 shed SARS-CoV-2 in their faeces for about three to five days before showing any signs. This happens even if they don't show symptoms, like a fever or cough.

As a result, wastewater testing can be used as an effective tool to detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 during or before an outbreak. This approach is reliable, relatively fast and cost-effective. Additionally, it can be used as an early warning tool to inform that SARS-CoV-2 is present in the community. These results then allow public health units to implement more frequent individual testing. This can help uncover community transmission early, before it spreads unknowingly.

The technique can also be used to detect the virus in smaller populations, like aged-care facilities, schools and prisons. These are places where COVID-19 prevention is particularly critical. For example, our scientists demonstrated how on-board testing of wastewater on cruise ships is effective in detecting SARS-CoV-2 before passengers disembark.

So into the future, this testing process provides a useful surveillance tool to detect and contain emerging clusters faster and more cost-effectively.

Meet Dr Warish Ahmed

Dr Warish Ahmed is a senior research scientist in our Land and Water business unit. He works front and centre on our wastewater testing.

"I also determine the human health risks of pathogens found in water and wastewater so any potential risks can be lessened," Warish said.

You can also usually find Warish in the lab, where a normal day involves a lot of analysis.

"I plan the day in advance where possible. But a typical day involves checking what samples are being delivered and consider their urgency. I then meet with colleagues to schedule and start working," he said.

"For the analysis, I need a well-mixed wastewater sample from a wastewater treatment plant in the catchment. After receiving the sample, I capture the virus using a concentration method, and then extract genetic fragments from the concentrated sample using RNA extraction kits.

"After some RNA quality checks, I use a specific lab technique known as quantitative reverse transcription PCR (RT-qPCR) to target a specific gene fragment of SARS-CoV-2. The whole process takes about four to five hours, depending on the number of samples.

"We then share these results with clients and colleagues. Because of this, my day involves a lot of quality control and checking. This makes sure the results I share are of the highest quality and reliable.

"It can be quite hectic sometimes because some samples are sensitive, so I need to provide extra care. But we manage it well as we have an effective workflow. We are also leaning towards automation in the laboratory so we may be able to deliver results even more rapidly," he said.

Why do you like working on this?

Warish's interest in using microbiology to look at environmental contaminants is something he's had for a while. Fifteen years to be exact.

"I enjoy what I do. I enjoy publishing impactful science and developing new methods. Additionally, I like troubleshooting problems and implementing new ideas and putting them to the test," Warish said.

"I like the fact this impact is delivered from CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency. It involves many strong collaborations, like with The University of Queensland and Queensland Health. This makes me proud to contribute and be involved so that we can help the community in the crisis.

"I enjoy collaborating with local and international scientists and learn a lot in the process."

And Warish's interest in science stems from his career aspirations as a child!

"I have studied science since my childhood. I wanted to have a PhD in science, which was a very cool thing for a small-town boy from Bangladesh," he said.

Warish always knew he wanted to work in science. However, he dabbled in a few scientific areas before he found his perfect fit.

"Although my parents wanted me to be a medical doctor, I didn’t get into medicine. So, I studied fisheries and marine resource technology instead. But to be honest, I didn’t really enjoy it. I don’t even eat fish," he laughed.

"I came to Australia to pursue a PhD in environmental science. After my PhD, I started working as a scientist. Fast forward to 2010 when I joined CSIRO, which where I am now!"

The future of wastewater testing and Twitter

We've outlined the benefits of wastewater testing. But what lies ahead?

"We are currently addressing critical research gaps in this field and continue our effort to manage this pandemic and the future," Warish said.

And these research gaps can present themselves in different ways. After all, Warish first started investigating wastewater samples for the virus through Twitter!

"One of my colleagues posted a link to a paper on Twitter that described the detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in patients' faeces," he said.

"However, I wasn't sure whether the concentration of RNA from the virus would be high enough to detect the virus with the tools I had.

"Various scientists told me it may not be possible. So, I partnered with colleagues from The University of Queensland via Twitter who provided wastewater samples.

"We were able to detect the SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater samples! It was a wow moment for us! We then commenced a range of studies to understand the limitations of the method and improve sensitivity."

As a result, the team published the world's first peer-reviewed proof-of-concept article in April this year. They've since published a further four research papers to improve wastewater testing methods. The team's research also aims to support timely and affordable testing at the community level.

"Based on our pilot study and other studies from The Netherlands and the USA, public health authorities in Australia have started monitoring wastewater. It can be used as an early warning system to inform public health units," Warish said.

"I have advised many researchers around the globe on method developments and technology with how-to guides and tips and tricks.

"I am also collaborating closely with a range of researchers in the USA, Japan, Australia, UK, Thailand, and New Zealand to assist them with bringing wastewater monitoring of SARS-CoV-2 into the future."

Good luck Warish!

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