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Melbourne Water helps lead national sewage testing project in fight against COVID-19

Melbourne Water will be at the forefront of an innovative COVID-19 sewage sampling project to help inform policy makers and health authorities about potential clusters of people infected with the virus and timelines of potential outbreaks.

Aerial view of sewage treatment lagoons at the Western Treatment Plant
Aerial shot of Western Treatment Plant lagoons

This sample analysis will help inform COVID-19 controls by indicating disease prevalence in the community.

Melbourne Water Chief Scientist Dr Melita Stevens says the surveillance of wastewater for the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) was an exciting and significant step with the potential to inform disease control programs.

“This sampling could potentially identify emerging or re-emergent outbreaks, better characterise the extent of asymptomatic infections and community transmission, identify the true peak in infected individuals (compared with confirmed cases) within a sewer catchment and confirm 'clearance' of the COVID-19 virus from an area,” Dr Stevens said.

Melbourne Water approached Water Research Australia (WRA) about coordinating a national approach to testing sewage for COVID-19 Virus and a working group was formed that included representatives from water utilities, health agencies and research groups.

The Australia-wide ColoSSos Project – Collaboration on Sewage Surveillance of SARS-COV-2, will track and monitor the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19 and its persistence in the Australian sewerage network, providing information on where it is present in the population. 

Dr Nick Crosbie is managing the project for Melbourne Water and says sampling has commenced at different sites across Melbourne and elsewhere in Australia.

“Melbourne Water has been involved in similar sewer epidemiology projects for a number of years that involved testing for a range of pathogenic viruses in treated and untreated wastewater and using that data to inform risk assessments.

“This project is in its early stages but is a promising methodology that may yield important new information to help inform disease control measures such as social distancing to flatten the curve.” Dr Crosbie said.

The national project has 12 utility partners, 6 health department and 10 research organisations involved. The program of work is supported by Water Services Association of Australia (WSAA).

Media contact

Catherine Garrett
Media Manager