ESR scientists are setting up a project to gain new insights in to Coronavirus by analysing wastewater samples.
The aim of the project is to detect and quantify SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) in wastewater and to better understand the role environmental monitoring can have in monitoring COVID-19 over time.
Sewage samples from known COVID-19 cluster areas have been collected and frozen while testing methodologies and protocols are established.
When ready to carry out the testing, scientists will extract RNA from concentrated sewage samples – using the PCR method to amplify the samples they’ll then look for genes associated with Coronavirus.
If detected, ESR Chief Scientist, Dr Brett Cowan says the value will be in monitoring the distribution and prevalence of COVID-19 in the weeks, months and years ahead.
“By detecting and monitoring Coronavirus in wastewater we could potentially see how effective eradication is, gauge changes in different regions as well as better understand the patterns of community transmission,” he says.
Unlike other viruses ESR has detected in wastewater, Coronavirus is a respiratory illness and is unlikely to be spread by contaminated faeces. This means levels of the virus will be low and hard to detect.
“It’s likely the virus will not last long in wastewater as digestive juices in the body and organisms in the sewage will rapidly break it down. This also means there’s very little risk of getting COVID-19 from wastewater,” says Dr Cowan.
“But the research is important, we’re collaborating with research organisations here and internationally and contributing to the global effort to learn more about Coronavirus and ultimately find a vaccination.”
ESR has extensive knowledge and experience in the field of wastewater-based epidemiology. Over the past year it has spearheaded the creation of a collaborative research based centre, that will use wastewater science as the basis for new insights into community wellbeing.
“While wastewater-based epidemiology is still seen as an emerging science, we’re already using it to better understand the health and wellbeing of our communities,” says Dr Cowan.