SA Water’s COVID-19 wastewater monitoring program has begun working with several interstate health agencies to undertake testing, and will be sharing the program with numerous countries throughout Southeast Asia.

SA Water’s scientists are supporting authorities in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam to bolster their defences against the pandemic’s sustained presence. 

The scientists are providing technical guidance on sampling and analytical techniques, and producing training material to help the countries establish surveillance programs.

The South Australian utility was selected to support countries in the Mekong region through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Australian Water Partnership – an initiative centred around providing support to help develop the region’s capabilities and share expertise in sustainable water management.

The utility’s testing capability – recently deemed the best in Australia – is also helping monitor for COVID-19 fragments in Tasmania, parts of New South Wales and the Northern Territory’s wastewater.

SA Water’s efforts to monitor and detect COVID-19 in the state’s wastewater were also recognised with the award for Excellence in Research and Development at the Australian Water Association’s South Australian Water Awards in 2020.

SA Water’s Senior Manager of Water Expertise and Research, Dr Daniel Hoefel, said he’s proud of their contribution to protecting public health and fostering a collective scientific prowess.

“From the swabs to our sewers, Australia’s health and water experts have combined their shared knowledge in the fight against COVID-19 to forge a strategy underpinned by early detection and ongoing surveillance, and it’s pleasing we’re now leading the way in this scientific research,” Dr Hoefel said.

“As our expertise in the field evolves, it’s important we collaborate and share resources to help strengthen our industry’s capabilities, while offering our testing services to our peers.

“We’ve held virtual workshops with representatives from Cambodia and Thailand, and will soon with Vietnam, sharing an abundance of knowledge and technical guidance to kickstart their testing programs.

“They’ve all shown a specific interest in our ‘sewage submarines’ because of the configuration of on-site treatment facilities, which will deliver more efficient sampling compared to manual processes.”

SA Water is the first utility in Australia to fully implement sewage submarines – which are 3D printed and assembled in-house at its state-of-the-art laboratory – routinely across the state’s wastewater network, with the devices submerged in sewage for up to four days to increase the likelihood of exposure to the virus.

“With our testing capacity expanding, we’re now providing our wastewater monitoring services to health and water authorities in the Northern Territory, Tasmania and parts of New South Wales,” Dr Hoefel said.

“The local water utilities provide sewage samples taken from their major treatment plants to ensure we capture a large amount of the population, and the samples are processed in our Adelaide-based laboratory.

“Our testing detected the presence of COVID-19 in their communities before it could be picked up by clinical testing during recent clusters, enabling authorities to implement targeted health strategies sooner.”

Water Research Australia (WaterRA) ColoSSoS Project Director, Dr Kelly Hill, said a recent inter-laboratory study once again emphasised the Australian water industry’s collaborative nature.

“The aim of this study was to understand the performance of wastewater surveillance programs being used to detect COVID-19, helping our utilities and specialist laboratories consider the proficiency of different protocols while enabling them to share knowledge and optimise their testing methodologies,” Dr Hill said.

“The study saw 11 laboratories from across Australia participate as part of our ColoSSoS collaboration, revealing one laboratory produced significantly higher recovery yields compared to the other participants.”

As part of the anonymous study, each participant was informed individually of their performance through the National Measurement Institute, which identified SA Water’s methodology as superior in terms of virus recovery, consistency of results and assay performance.

In 2020, SA Water’s scientists developed a specialised molecular technique to identify the virus’ genetic signature, viral RNA, and established methodology to determine how much of it is present in sewage.

Dr Hoefel said the utility continues to play a vital role in South Australia’s response to the pandemic.

“Working alongside SA Health, we’re testing wastewater across metropolitan Adelaide and several regional areas twice a week on average, to ensure we’re detecting any prevalence of the virus in our community as quickly as possible,” Dr Hoefel said.

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