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Coronavirus (COVID-19) wastewater surveillance program

Coronavirus (COVID-19) wastewater surveillance program

Frequently asked questions about North East Water's participation.

Who is overseeing the wastewater surveillance program in Victoria?

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is overseeing the Victorian wastewater surveillance program with support from Victorian water utilities in the collection of wastewater samples.

Who has been responsible for the development of the laboratory testing methods?

The testing methods were developed through the Collaboration on Sewage Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 (ColoSSoS) project, led by Water Research Australia. Multiple laboratories and researchers have been involved including Australian Laboratory Services (ALS), The University of Melbourne, Melbourne Water, Monash University, Victorian Infectious Disease Reference Laboratory (VIDRL), Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI), SA Water and Sydney Water. 

Why is North East Water taking samples of wastewater to test for fragments of coronavirus (COVID-19)?

North East Water is participating in a national research program to track and monitor the presence of the virus that causes coronavirus (COVID-19) in the sewerage network. This will help to provide information on where it may be present in the population. North East Water is sending samples taken at least weekly from the Benalla, Wangaratta and West Wodonga sewage treatment plants for testing at laboratories in Melbourne.

Can wastewater testing provide an early warning or early detection of coronavirus (COVID-19)?

In areas where there are no known active or positive cases of coronavirus (COVID-19), a positive wastewater testing result may provide an early warning and indicate there may be members of the community (including visitors) who have not been diagnosed but may have recently had coronavirus (COVID-19).

What are the samples used for?

The samples will be tested for fragments of SARS-CoV-2, the specific virus that causes coronavirus (COVID-19). The samples will help health officials identify if it is present in communities, specifically where these communities currently have no known cases of coronavirus (COVID-19). Depending on the location and context, this can prompt increased or targeted wastewater testing, as well increased or targeted public health advice for individual testing and other protective measures.

Can I get coronavirus (COVID-19) from wastewater?

No. There’s no evidence that the virus can be transmitted through wastewater, either before or after treatment. The viral fragments that are identified during the laboratory testing process themselves are not infectious.

What precautions are North East Water taking in its work with wastewater?

All work with wastewater is always carried out under the strictest safety conditions. All of our workers, including our wastewater workers, are operating under a COVIDSafe Plan that includes full and appropriate personal protective equipment when handling wastewater.

How can coronavirus (COVID-19) be detected in wastewater?

People who have had coronavirus (COVID-19) may shed the virus or virus fragments on used tissues, off their hands and skin when washing, and in their stools. The virus breaks down and viral fragments enter wastewater through bowls, sinks, drains, and travels through the sewerage network.

Who is coordinating the national wastewater surveillance research program?

The program is being coordinated by Water Research Australia. Water Research Australia is working with national experts in health, microbiology, laboratory testing, and wastewater-based epidemiology. They are also liaising with state and territory health authorities to develop wastewater surveillance as a complementary tool to assist health departments with the early detection of undiagnosed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19).

Is North East Waster conducting the testing of the samples?

No. North East Water is collecting the samples - the testing itself is being conducted at laboratories in Melbourne as directed by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Are other water utilities involved in this program?

Yes. Water utilities across Australia are involved in the program. The significant contributions from water utilities are critical to the success of this program. Water utilities are best placed to understand the finer details of their sewer networks. They are also working collaboratively with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the wider water sector to support the design of the sampling program and the logistics of delivering samples to laboratories for testing.

How are sample sites chosen?

Testing for SARS-CoV-2 fragments in wastewater is a specialised test and is not routinely available. The current sampling locations have been decided by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Sampling sites are chosen based on a number of factors, however the main aim is to sample from sites that will provide the most useful data in the context of the Victorian response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Where can I find more information about the program?

For more information:

Water Research Australia

DHHS