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Scientists punt sewage water testing as best way to track COVID-19

Experts at the University of the Free State’s Centre for Environmental Management believe that sewage surveillance would be the easiest and more cost-effective way of tracking infections than mass testing.

Picture: 123rf.com

CAPE TOWN - Scientists say sewage could be a secret weapon in the tracking of the COVID-19 virus.

Experts at the University of the Free State’s Centre for Environmental Management believe that sewage surveillance would be the easiest and more cost-effective way of tracking infections than mass testing.

The ability to track large infection loads in geographic areas is key to fighting COVID-19.

At the moment, health authorities achieve this by mass screening and testing campaigns but inevitably large numbers of infected people who are not showing symptoms slip through the net.

The University of the Free State’s Professor Anthony Turton believes there's a way to see those infected people by examining sewage.

"We know that when a person is asymptomatic, they shed virus through their waste - urine, faeces - both carry the virus and this ultimately ends up in the waste waterworks."

With advances in detection technology, that water can be tested for even the smallest fragments of the virus.

"From that you can calculate what the total viral load is in the upstream catchment of the waste waterworks."

Turton said that this level of broad information, linked to specific areas, could help authorities get a true and broad picture of infection rates.

"It enables the decision-makers to close the gap in their knowledge, that big gap about how many people are asymptomatic and what the viral load is in a society."

The technology that allows for this kind of monitoring is Dutch but the South African Business Water Chamber has acquired the rights to use it locally.

For official information about COVID-19 from the Department of Health, please click here.