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Victorian utility leads COVID-19 sewage surveillance project

Melbourne Water is at the forefront of an innovative COVID-19 sewage sampling project to keep policy makers and health authorities informed about potential infection clusters within communities – and provide timelines of potential outbreaks.

The utility approached Water Research Australia (WRA) about coordinating a national approach to testing sewage for the virus that causes COVID-19 and a working group was created: ColoSSos Project – Collaboration on Sewage Surveillance of SARS-CoV-2.

The nationwide initiative will track and monitor the presence of the virus causing COVID-19 and its persistence in the Australian sewerage network, providing information on where it is present in the population.

Melbourne Water Chief Scientist Dr Melita Stevens said the wastewater analysis project has the potential to inform disease control programs in aid of the fight against the global pandemic.

“This sampling could potentially identify emerging or re-emergent outbreaks, better characterise the extent of asymptomatic infections and community transmission,” Stevens said.

“[It could] identify the true peak in infected individuals (compared with confirmed cases) within a sewer catchment and confirm 'clearance' of the COVID-19 virus from an area."

Melbourne Water Project Manager Dr Nick Crosbie said sampling has begun at different sites across Melbourne and elsewhere in Australia.

“Melbourne Water has been involved in similar sewer epidemiology projects for a number of years that involved testing for a range of pathogenic viruses in treated and untreated wastewater and using that data to inform risk assessments,” he said.

“This project is in its early stages but is a promising methodology that may yield important new information to help inform disease control measures such as social distancing to flatten the curve.”

There are currently 12 utilities, six health departments and 10 research organisations involved in the working group.