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Central Highlands Water (CHW) and Goulburn Valley Water (GVW) have joined a nation-wide research project to test  wastewater networks for traces of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The ColoSSoS Project (Collaboration on Sewage Surveillance of SARS COV2) project will test, track and monitor the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in order to better understand how it spreads.

An innovative collaboration led by Water Research Australia (WaterRA), the project involves experts in health, microbiology, laboratory testing, wastewater-based epidemiology and policy communication through collaboration with water utilities, health departments and researchers.

The genetic material of coronavirus, not the live virus, can be present in the sewage. 

Testing sewage could help trace Coronavirus’ persistence in the Australian sewerage network and identify locations and clusters where the virus is present.

A similar research project in the Netherlands has shown that sewage testing has the potential to detect Coronavirus in a community even before individual testing. 

CHW’s Managing Director, Paul O’Donohue, said the Australia-wide research project could have major public health ramifications in the nation’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic.

“The results from this testing will be integrated with health data to guide the management of Coronavirus and demonstrates the role water utilities can have in supporting our community through this pandemic,” Mr O’Donohue said.

Weekly sewage samples are taken from a number of local wastewater treatment plants by CHW operators, and are then forwarded to Melbourne for testing. CHW will provide 24 weeks of sampling. 

Coronavirus is just one of many viruses that may be present in wastewater. Coronavirus is a weaker virus that cannot grow outside of a host and, as such, current treatment processes are more than sufficient. 

Goulburn Valley Water General Manager – Service Delivery, Daniel Flanagan, said ColoSSoS was a nationally important piece of research to be involved in, particularly for tracking the virus in regional Victoria.

“This research will help us understand how the virus is spreading within Shepparton through a community-wide approach, and also to monitor for any re-emergence of the virus in the future,” Mr Flanagan said.

“It will also provide evidence to help health authorities understand the effects of measures to slow the spread of Coronavirus, particularly in monitoring any potential easing of restrictions.

“While it’s still in early stages, the project could also help to ensure we’re more prepared to face future epidemic outbreaks and to understand disease prevalence in communities.”

GVW samples will be taken weekly from the inflow point at the Shepparton Wastewater Management Facility and analysed alongside samples from across the state.

The monitoring project will also help to supplement results from individual testing.

While virus transmission in wastewater does not pose an additional risk, GVW staff are taking additional precautionary measures as part of the organisation’s Coronavirus response, including wearing PPE, regularly cleansing and sanitising, and physical distancing.

CHW’s existing safe work practices still apply and no specific changes need to be made due to Coronavirus. CHW has also reassured customers that it has plans in place to continue supplying its water and wastewater services to its communities. 

GVW and CHW join Melbourne Water and other water authorities working on the ColoSSos project.

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