Tracking COVID-19 transmission through our sewage

Manhole cover
14 April 2020

A first-of-its-kind project from The Australian National University (ANU) will detect COVID-19 in sewage to examine the virus' transmission outside of patient testing or hospital reporting.

Project Lead, ANU epidemiologist Dr Aparna Lal says it would be the first time it was being done in the ACT.

"In order to limit the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus we must find out how much transmission is occurring and so that we can act on that information appropriately," she said.

"Investigating control strategies will depend on finding and controlling community transmission as soon as it starts.

"We can do this by detecting the virus in our sewage and using this information to drive decisions about public health."

The project will begin next week in The Australian Capital Territory but the researcher says it will be of national interest.

"Scientists reported finding coronavirus in Holland's wastewater before COVID-19 cases were officially reported there," Dr Lal said.

"If we can pick up early warning of the virus in Canberra through sewage, it would provide critical information for preventative interventions and health service planning both in the ACT and nationally."

Dr Lal said at this stage Canberra had little or even possibly no community transmission.  

"But the current focus on data from testing clinics and hospital reporting does not provide a good estimate of community transmission and won't capture people who may be infectious but not show symptoms until significantly later," Dr Lal said.

"Detection of the virus from sewage gives us the ability to monitor the circulation of the virus in the environment.

"This detection is an additional measure to find the trigger points that community transmission has stopped."

Dr Lal stressed that our sewage systems were not a source of COVID-19 transmission.

"There is no evidence that the virus is spread through sewage," she said.

"But what this study will do is let us see whether sewage could be used to continuously monitor the presence of the virus in the community even when case numbers go down.

"This will work will also tell us if sewage monitoring can serve as a warning system to give us a heads up before case numbers go up."