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Collaborative studies by CSIRO and The University of Queensland in early 2020 provided proof that wastewater surveillance could detect COVID-19 prevalence in a community.

Ongoing research has refined the application of this science, providing evidence that wastewater (untreated sewage) testing can help inform local public health responses. This can occur as early as infected people begin shedding the virus in faeces, whether or not they show symptoms that prompt clinical testing.

The technique has now been adopted by many jurisdictions developing operational responses to COVID outbreaks, allowing public health professionals to target specific areas for public health interventions and/or gathering information regarding the circulation of the virus in a community.

CSIRO and UQ have been supporting Queensland Health with their wastewater surveillance program since July 2020, testing sewage for traces of the COVID-19 virus in dozens of locations across Queensland to enhance their response to the pandemic.

Wastewater monitoring helps disease surveillance and monitoring by identifying hotspots and allowing targeted localised public health responses, such as increased individual testing, setting up fever clinics, and providing health warnings. 

The analysis involves tracking genetic fragments of the COVID-19 virus which are flushed into the wastewater system through infected people's faeces. 

In collaboration with Qantas, the team has also successfully demonstrated the approach for detecting infections within international travellers.

Monitoring sewage for early detection of COVID-19 outbreaks


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.


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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