Dr Paul Bertsch, CSIRO Land and Water’s Science Director, who is part of CSIRO’s wastewater team joins Dave to explain how important finding covid 19 in Waste Water can be.
We are continuing to refine an early warning surveillance system to track COVID-19 prevalence in
the community through tracing the presence of the novel coronavirus gene in raw sewage.
Researchers from The University of Queensland (UQ) and Australia’s national science agency
CSIRO have successfully demonstrated the presence of SARS-CoV2, the virus which leads to the
disease COVID-19, in Australian untreated wastewater (sewage).
The world’s first peer-reviewed proof of concept study was published in April using wastewater
samples from two wastewater treatment plants in South East Queensland, representing
populations living in the Brisbane region.
UQ and CSIRO researchers found RNA fragments of SARS-CoV2 in untreated sewage which would
have been shed in the wastewater stream by COVID-19 infected people.
This method is particularly useful for catchments with vulnerable populations where testing using
other methods may not be feasible and for monitoring and response in the recovery phase.
Since April, The University of Queensland and CSIRO in partnership have released a series of
papers on the use of wastewater surveillance as a diagnostic measure to track the movement of
COVID-19 through the community, including vulnerable areas, from long-haul transportation and
aged care facilities to remote communities.
Papers supporting the research
A paper outlining the proof of concept was published in the Science of the Total
Environment scientific journal .
Global collaboration hub
We’re involved in global collaboration: COVID-19 WBE Collaborative
CSIRO researcher Dr Warish Ahmed led the findings published in The Science of the Total
Environment, which evaluated the concentration, recovery and detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA (its
Our plane/ship paper was published July 14, in Journal of Travel Medicine (Oxford Uni Press)
The decay of SARS-CoV-2
Our decay paper was published online August 28, 2020, in Environmental Research.
It confirmed that SARS-CoV-2 RNA is likely to persist long enough in wastewater to permit
It also found that temperature most greatly influenced SARS-CoV-2 RNA first-order decay
State of the knowledge
SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater: State of the knowledge and research needs paper published
October 15, 2020, in Science of the Total Environment
Sampling paper shows best results from 24-hour composite samples
This paper, published November 26, 2020, in Environmental Research, reveals that 24-hour
composite samples offer increased analytical sensitivity and decreased variability
compared to samples taken one-hourly.
Early detection paper
Published in Science of the Total Environment on December 5, this study indicated that if
sampling is both frequent and widespread enough, the testing can detect the virus before
people feel sick, as their bodies start shedding fragments of the virus into the
wastewater system through their faeces before they know they’re infected.
Papers by others/background :
September 12: https://i.stuff.co.nz/national/health/coronavirus/300105935/covid19-most-
Another strong argument for WBE.
This paper has some useful Figures (1, 2B, 2C and 4) that complement our ‘timeline’, with
perhaps 5 days of pre-symptomatic ‘spreading’ of the virus before people even consider
going for a clinical test. Again supporting wastewater testing filling a big gap where clinical
testing hasn’t yet been considered. Test and trace systems are missing Covid-19 cases
because much of transmission occurs in the five days before symptoms show, research
The study by Oxford University in the UK shows that the peak of transmission occurred just
before and after the onset of symptoms.
However, 42 per cent of cases were spread in the five days before any signs of the virus
The University of Arizona says it caught a dorm’s covid-19 outbreak before it started. Its
secret weapon: Poop https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/08/28/arizona-
Based on our knowledge of viruses and water, drinking water is very well protected against
all viruses , including SARS-CoV-2.
NZ have funded ESR ($1.5M) to commence wastewater monitoring
Worldwide wastewater monitoring could save up to USD$1 Billion for national monitoring
programs depending on frequency of sampling and population, according to research .
(Wastewater monitoring has been shown to be significantly cheaper and faster than clinical
screening for COVID-19, but would be used as an added diagnostic measure.)
General background on the international work in this area on their QAEHS webpage –
Early Nature article- https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00973-x
INQueensland article, April 7: https://inqld.com.au/news/2020/04/07/the-small-number-
Researchers from The University of Queensland (UQ) and CSIRO have successfully
demonstrated the presence of SARS-CoV2, the virus which leads to the disease COVID-19,
in Australian untreated wastewater (sewage). This has enabled surveillance of the spread
of the virus through Australian communities.
Research is now refining the methods to detect the geographic regions where COVID-19 is
present, and the approximate number of people infected – without testing every individual
in a location. This can support public health management of the pandemic prior to infected
people showing symptoms.
This tool can be used in municipal wastewater treatment plants, facilities such as aged care
homes, or cruise ships, to give an early warning of the disease through the faeces flushed
into wastewater systems, and supporting monitoring and response in the recovery phase.
The research uses systematic sampling and analysis of wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 using a
standardised, coordinated approach based on refined analytical methods. The wastewater
samples are analysed for specific nucleic acid fragments of the virus using RT-PCR analysis,
which is used to identify a gene fragment from SARS-CoV2. The presence of SARS-CoV2 in
specific wastewater samples is then confirmed using sequencing techniques.
On 16 July 2020 CSIRO announced results of collaboration with UQ to test on-board
wastewater from lavatories on aircraft and cruise ships. A paper in Journal of Travel
Medicine reported that testing upon arriving at the destination had detected genetic
fragments of the COVID-19 virus, SARS-CoV-2. This tool could help as governments and
transport industries develop plans to minimise transmission associated with resuming
A proof of concept study was completed in early April using wastewater samples from two
wastewater treatment plants in South East Queensland, representing populations living in
the Brisbane region.
This work will be particularly useful for catchments with vulnerable populations where
testing using other methods may not be feasible.
The testing was conducted on Australian untreated wastewater (sewage). This is very
different from drinking water. Based on our knowledge of viruses and water, drinking
water is very well protected against all viruses, including the new coronavirus.
Communication Protocol and Contacts
All general CSIRO media inquiries relating to the COVID waste water research be directed
to CSIRO Land and Water communication manager Helen Beringen CSIRO, 0437 338 298,
firstname.lastname@example.org in the first instance. Helen will continue to liaise with CSIRO
COVID communication coordinator Cass Erbs.
Subsequent media interview requests regarding specific science will be directed to CSIRO
Land and Water Science Director Dr Paul Bertsch.
General media inquiries to The University of Queensland (UQ) will be handled by Dani
Nash, UQ Communications, 0434 551 578, email@example.com
UQ’s science spokesperson will be Professor Kevin Thomas, Director of UQ’s Queensland
Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences