Testing of sewage samples collected in Victoria’s Apollo Bay in recent days has shown viral fragments of the virus that causes COVID-19, the Victorian Government has announced today.
In a statement, the government said the virus had been detected in wastewater on Friday 4 September from a sample collected from the influent (entry pipe) to the sewage treatment plant on Tuesday 1 September.
It said the positive result was also confirmed with an independent test of the same sample collected on 1 September. A further wastewater sample taken on Saturday 5 September was also positive for viral fragments.
In the wake of the findings, the Department of Health and Human Services has stepped up testing in the areas with the help of local health services.
“Wastewater testing may be able to give us early warning that coronavirus is in a community and the head start we need for early detection and preventive action,” said Minister for Health, Jenny Mikakos.
While Apollo Bay currently has no known active COVID-19 cases, residents with even mild symptoms are being urged to get tested, with more than 60 local people already answering the call to be tested since the weekend, with no positive results at present.
Victoria has joined other states and New Zealand in a collaborative research project to understand the occurrence of coronavirus viral fragments in wastewater systems. Coordinated by Water Research Australia, the ColoSSoS project (Collaboration on Sewage Surveillance of SARS-CoV-2) brings together health departments, water utilities, laboratories and researchers from Australia and New Zealand to share advances in this rapidly evolving field.
Authorities say people who have had coronavirus may shed the virus or virus fragments on used tissues, off their hands and skin when washing, and in their stool.
It’s believed that the virus breaks down and viral fragments enter wastewater through bowls, sinks and drains, and travels through the sewerage network.
Minister for Water, Lisa Neville said up to 300 samples a week can be taken and tested from across 25 sites across Victoria’s metropolitan and regional sewerage network.
“Sewage testing has great potential to provide communities with early warning about local cases of coronavirus – and our water corporations are proud to be joining health research partners and playing a role in the fight against this virus,” said Ms Neville.
She said while viral fragments may indicate that people within a community have or have recently had coronavirus, it can take several weeks for people to shed the virus which is well beyond their infectious period.
Premier Daniel Andrews said sewage monitoring may become more valuable as an early detection tool as the number of new infections detected through routine testing reduces.
“Knowledge is power when it comes to the fight against coronavirus – we’ll continue to use all tools we have available to keep communities safe as we take our First Step to COVID Normal,” the Premier said.
“Our wastewater testing is just another local partnership to track and trace the virus – and by combining positive results with a testing push we are ensuring communities are COVID safe.”
The Department will continue to review sewage test results as well as the epidemiology of coronavirus across Victoria to guide sewage testing locations and the frequency of sampling, he said.
The ColoSSoS project has linkages with similar projects in the USA, Canada, Europe and South Africa, as well as via the Global Water Research Coalition.