Australia is getting down and dirty to combat the COVID-19 pandemic — unrolling a vast program of sewage testing in the hope of finding hidden clusters of the coronavirus.
Melbourne has begun testing wastewater and excrement for traces of COVID-19 in a bid to focus conventional testing and tracing strategies on problem suburbs or neighborhoods.
Nicholas Crosbie of Melbourne Water said that the utility hopes to monitor samples from 71 percent of people in Victoria, one of Australia’s most populous states.
“So the whole point of this is to be vigilant and to find undetected cases or re-emergence,” Crosbie said.
Sewage has also been tested in places such as Paris, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Massachusetts and Valencia, Spain — although mostly on a small scale to prove detection can work.
As Australia takes tentative steps toward reopening after a two-month lockdown, health officials are betting on a massive program of testing and contact tracing to help prevent a second wave of cases.
More than 1 million people across the nation of 25 million have already been tested for the coronavirus, but authorities say wastewater is a cheap and effective way to monitor the disease.
Hydrographers lower buckets into sewer lines to collect samples, which are then taken to a laboratory where they are concentrated and tested for ultra-trace levels of the coronavirus.
“We know that coronavirus is excreted in the feces for up to six weeks after first symptoms appear,” Crosbie said, adding there were no concerns about contracting COVID-19 from treated water as conventional wastewater treatments kill it off.
The process is similar to wastewater testing already carried out to detect diseases such as polio and the presence of drugs such as cocaine.
“Compared to clinical testing it is very cost-effective, but by no means does it replace clinical surveillance,” he said. “The whole point of this is to be able to target clinical surveillance more effectively.”
If the testing laboratory detects a positive result, it can be traced back to the suburb of origin, but not narrowed down to a specific house.
“If there’s a suburb that hasn’t had a case identified, but it is in the wastewater stream, then we realize we need to focus on that suburb to find the people,” Australian Minister for Health Greg Hunt told TV station Channel 7.
Australia has been relatively successful in containing the spread of the coronavirus, recording 7,095 cases and 101 deaths.
The nation has begun gingerly relaxing restrictions in a three-step reopening process that is to unfold over several months.
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