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Melbourne Water will spearhead a new project that aims to identify clusters of people infected with the Coronavirus by sampling sewage.

The innovative project is designed to equip policy makers and health authorities with crucial data about communities affected with the virus, as well as timelines of potential outbreaks.

The sample analysis will help inform COVID-19 controls by indicating disease prevalence in the community.

Melbourne Water Chief Scientist, Dr Melita Stevens, says the surveillance of wastewater for the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) was an exciting and significant step with the potential to inform disease control programs.

“This sampling could potentially identify emerging or re-emergent outbreaks, better characterise the extent of asymptomatic infections and community transmission, identify the true peak in infected individuals (compared with confirmed cases) within a sewer catchment and confirm ‘clearance’ of the COVID-19 virus from an area,” Dr Stevens said.

Melbourne Water approached Water Research Australia (WRA) about coordinating a national approach to testing sewage for COVID-19, and a working group was formed that included representatives from water utilities, health agencies and research groups.

Aerial shot of Western Treatment Plant lagoon

Aerial shot of Western Treatment Plant lagoon

A ColoSSos of a task

The Australia-wide ColoSSos Project – Collaboration on Sewage Surveillance of SARS-COV-2, will track and monitor the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19 and its persistence in the Australian sewerage network, providing information on where it is present in the population. 

Dr Nick Crosbie, who is managing the project for Melbourne Water, said sampling had commenced at different sites across Melbourne and elsewhere in Australia.

“Melbourne Water has been involved in similar sewer epidemiology projects for a number of years that involved testing for a range of pathogenic viruses in treated and untreated wastewater and using that data to inform risk assessments,” Dr Crosbie said.

“This project is in its early stages, but is a promising methodology that may yield important new information to help inform disease control measures such as social distancing to flatten the curve.”

The national project has 12 utility partners, with six health departments and ten research organisations involved. The program of work is supported by the Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA).

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