Testing poo can help virus fight

Researchers at the Australian National University will test sewage for traces of coronavirus to help ascertain the true rate of infection in the community.

Dr Aparna Lal, from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, says the ANU will be replicating a study in the Netherlands that proved the disease could be detected in our faeces.

“If we can actually detect it in the sewage … it means that we can use it to monitor the circulation of the virus in the population and … we can use it as an early warning tool for increased circulation in the future.”

Dr Lal told the ABC that tracking wastewater sewage was already a well-established and cheap method for detecting antibiotic and opioid usage levels.

The ANU will ‘piggyback’ on the work of waste treatment facility operator Icon Water, which already tests sewage daily. Samples will then be analysed at the genetics lab at the John Curtin School for Medical Research.

Dr Lal says the ‘passive surveillance system’, also used in New Zealand and parts of the United States, can reduce reliance on continuous patient monitoring and hospital reports to ascertain rates of infection. 

It will also help authorities measure the effectiveness of social distancing measures when they relax coronavirus restrictions.

“What happens when we relax social distancing measures, when we open borders and send people back to work? Do we see a change in the load of the virus in the population?”

One treatment plant can process wastewater from more than a million people, Dutch microbiologist Gertjan Medema told scientific journal Nature. This could provide better estimates for coronavirus prevalence than testing, “because wastewater surveillance can account for those who have not been tested and have only mild or no symptoms”.

The virus can be detected in faeces within three days of infection. It can take two weeks for patients to get officially diagnosed.

Tamar Kohn, an environmental virologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, says tracking the virus in wastewater could inform officials when to re-introduce measures such as lockdowns, reducing the severity of outbreaks.

Are you surprised at the capabilities of sewage treatment plants to detect drug usage and now the presence of the coronavirus?

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Written by Will Brodie


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