Africa’s first Covid-19 faecal findings are nothing to be poo-pooed
A KZN lab’s ability to detect Covid-19 in sewage could ease transmission and identify hotspots
Scientists from a laboratory in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands say they have unearthed groundbreaking research that will allow authorities to predict and detect Covid-19 hotspots based on sewerage systems.
The lab, believed to be the first in Africa to deliver the results, says the information could greatly contribute to easing community transmission through this new source of detection.
At the height of the country’s national lockdown in May, Hilton’s Greenhill Laboratories was approached by Prof Anthony Turton of Amanzi-4-All, a non-governmental organisation that deals with water security in SA, to run lab tests for Covid-19 in sewerage systems based on protocols from a Dutch water research institute.
According to TimesLIVE, Turton had previously compared the process of detection to fingerprinting.
“Think of fingerprinting to understand this process. The coronavirus has a precise fingerprint consisting of strands of carbon-based nucleotides arranged in a known sequence. It breaks down after the virus is destroyed, but remains present like a bowl of minute pieces of spaghetti. Once detected and identified, it is then amplified or increased through a process known as a polymerase chain reaction.
“In effect, this merely replicates what is originally present, like a photocopy machine,” he said.
We are just hoping that this gets rolled out nationally and that we could make a difference to the pandemic in SA, and make a positive contribution to how it’s controlled and handled.Dr Shaun Groenink, Greenhill Laboratories director
Samples were collected from five wastewater treatment works in Gauteng and sent to Greenhill, where principal molecular biologist Dr Cara-Lesley Bartlett analysed them for Covid-19.
“We are using the same test kits that would be used in medical labs to test for the coronavirus. There is a huge surge of cases at the moment and that has the danger to not only overwhelm the hospitals, but also the health-care workers who are going out into communities to do screening and so on. Obviously, with a population of around 60 million people, it becomes very difficult for the limited number of health-care workers to get to everyone,” said Dr Shaun Groenink, the director of Greenhill.
Groenink said that the research would help health authorities predict and monitor Covid-19 hotspots.
“There is European research that indicates that you can detect the viral RNA in sewage for up to three days before anyone is showing symptoms. So if we are detecting an increase of virtual load in a particular community we can then direct the health-care workers to that community to focus their attention there and just monitor other communities where there is no viral load in the sewage. With this we can then concentrate and target health-care workers to particular communities, where we can hopefully predict those outbreaks and hotspots,” said Groenink.
Ideally, the researchers want to do weekly sampling of wastewater treatment works and monitor the viral load per week, he added.
The establishment of a Proof of Concept facilitates the development of additional parameters, such as the quantification of viral load. This additional data can be used to monitor community-wide viral load and assess whether various mitigation strategies are working or not.
“We are just hoping that this gets rolled out nationally and that we could make a difference to the pandemic in SA, and a positive contribution to how it’s controlled and handled,” said Groenink.