Unlikely ‘tool’ to detect virus outbreaks

By | July 8, 2020

Dr Aparna La, from the Australian National University Research School of Population Health, told The Briefing Podcast on PodcastOne Australia her team had taken daily samples from the city’s Lower Molonglo sewage treatment plant.

“We started collecting samples from the end of April and the results that we just released show no detection of the virus in all samples that we took from May,” Dr La said on Wednesday. 

“This period, I guess, coincided with a period when there were no new coronavirus cases in the ACT either.”

“In my view, these are really excellent outcomes because it kind of supports what we already knew and it reassures the community and the health authorities that there were no high levels of undetected community transmission, which is one of the things that sewage can be really good for.”

She said they subjected the samples to advanced genetic testing to make sure the process worked, picking up “other RNA viruses” but no sign of COVID-19. 

Australia has recorded a total 8697 cases of COVID-19, with 3251 in New South Wales, 2942 in Victoria, 1068 in Queensland, 443 in South Australia, 624 in Western Australia, 228 in Tasmania, 111 in the Australian Capital Territory and 30 in the Northern Territory.

Australia’s coronavirus death toll is 106. 

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“If you don’t have the core workforce of a size proportionate to your jurisdiction to train those people, that’s where it can come a little bit unstuck,” one federal official told the publication.

“There is a difference between the numbers of core public health people in Victoria compared to NSW.”

Analysing wastewater is a “really good indicator of illness” and could be used to detect COVID-19 in communities before infections are diagnosed in clinics, health experts say. 

Lead researcher Dr Aparna La, from the Australian National University Research School of Population Health, spoke to The Briefing Podcast on PodcastOne Australia on Wednesday. 

She told hosts Tom Tilley and Annika Smethurst her team had taken daily samples of wastewater from the Lower Molonglo sewage treatment plant, “looking at Canberra as a whole”.

She said the “quite established method” is used worldwide to analyse the use of antibiotics and opioids in communities, and had been used in The Netherlands to detect coronavirus in the sewage before clinical infections were diagnosed.

“It’s a really good indicator of who is sick,” she said.

Dr La said “in no way is sewage testing going to replace nasal swabs” but it is an “additional tool” that can be used to support such methods.

Almost three million COVID-19 tests have been conducted in Australia. Picture: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

Dr La said they started collecting samples from the end of April.

“The results that we just released show no detection of the virus in all samples that we took from May,” she said. 

“So this period, I guess, coincided with a period when there were no new coronavirus cases in the ACT either.

“In my view, these are really excellent outcomes because it kind of supports what we already knew and it reassures the community and the health authority that there were no high levels of undetected community transmission, which is one of the things that sewage can be really good for.”

She said they subjected the samples to advanced genetic testing to make sure the process worked, picking up “other RNA viruses” but no sign of COVID-19. 

“Now that we know that the method works, what we are working on is making it more sensitive and making it a lot faster than it currently is,” Dr La said.

“But because our samples coincided with a period of no coronavirus cases in the ACT, at this stage we can’t say how much virus in the sewage would equal to how many infections in the community.

“There are, at the moment, different groups doing it in different parts of the country so it would be really good for us to come together and set up a standardised, national sort of monitoring protocol using sewage.”

There were three new cases detected in the ACT on Wednesday after a month without any new infections. They are all linked to the coronavirus outbreak in Melbourne. 

Health and Fitness | news.com.au — Australia’s leading news site