Detecting signs of COVID-19 in sewage offers virus-tracking potential
The battle against the novel coronavirus calls for inventive ways to track its spread, and one way scientists are working to achieve this is through our sewage. Australian researchers are reporting a breakthrough in this area, discovering evidence of the virus in raw wastewater samples collected in the northern state of Queensland.
The breakthrough was made by scientists at the University of Queensland (UQ) and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), who collected sewage samples from two treatment plants and took them to the lab for chemical analysis. This led to the discovery of RNA fragments of SARS-CoV2, the virus that gives rise to the disease COVID-19.
“The wastewater samples were analyzed for specific nucleic acid fragments of the virus using RT-PCR analysis, which is used to identify a gene fragment from SARS-CoV2,” says UQ’s Professor Kevin Thomas. “The presence of SARS-CoV2 in specific wastewater samples was then confirmed using sequencing techniques.”
This proof of concept is seen as a promising first step toward an early warning system to track the spread of COVID-19 through the community.
“The COVID-19 wastewater surveillance pilot is extremely encouraging and has the potential to further strengthen Australia’s response to the global pandemic,” says Australian Health Minister, Greg Hunt. “A national program based on this work could add to the broader suite of measures our Government can use in the identification and containment of COVID-19.”
The practice of analyzing sewage samples in search of key chemical markers is known as wastewater-based epidemiology, and it is emerging as a very viable tool for tracking not just disease outbreaks, but the rise of superbugs, levels of drug use or even obesity levels among local populations.
While collecting samples for chemical analysis in the laboratory is currently the best approach to gathering such insights into public health from sewage, researchers are working on cheap, remote sensors that could be installed at treatment plants to quickly and easily reveal the contents of the samples.
Meanwhile, the Australian researchers will look to build on their early promising results by developing the technique to provide even more precise insights.
“The hope is eventually we will be able to not just detect the geographic regions where COVID-19 is present, but also the approximate number of people infected – without testing every individual in a location,” says CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall. “This will give the public a better sense of how well we are containing this pandemic.”
A paper detailing the research will be published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.
Source: University of Queensland