A lone tourist poses for a photo in Circular Quay in Sydney, Australia, March 20, 2020.
FILE - A lone tourist poses for a photo in Circular Quay in Sydney on March 20, 2020, after Australia moved to seal off its borders to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

SYDNEY - Australian researchers are developing a new sewage test that could help identify coronavirus hot spots.

They believe the sewage test could be a reliable early warning system to detect cases of COVID-19, highlighting not just specific areas where the disease is present, but the approximate number of people infected.

Samples of raw effluent at two wastewater plants in the state of Queensland were found to contain genetic fragments of the disease.

It’s hoped the study will help officials when they start to wind back restrictions on public movement by highlighting coronavirus hot spots.

Australia has closed restaurants, bars and many shops, while imposing fines on those who flout rules on public gatherings of more than two people.

Professor Kevin Thomas, an environmental health scientist at the University of Queensland, says the test would give a broad indication of how well the pandemic is being contained.

“We think some of the advantages and benefits of also using wastewater testing alongside conventional testing is that it can tell us whether COVID (19) has infected a community at a very early stage, and at the same time it can tell us when a community is relatively free of COVID-19,” he said.  “Then we can, of course, monitor changes over time to evaluate whether the measures that we are all placed under at the moment to try to flatten the curve.”

Research published by the journal Nature Medicine recently found people excrete traces of COVID-19 two to three days before they show symptoms.  The analysis of sewage could potentially allow the authorities to identify clusters of the new coronavirus before those infected have even realized they are unwell.

Federal health minister Greg Hunt says the sewage surveillance scheme is “extremely encouraging” and has the potential to further strengthen Australia’s response to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The sewage test study is a collaboration between the University of Queensland and the government’s science agency, the CSIRO, and builds on research in the Netherlands and the United States.

Widespread testing could begin within weeks.

There are more than 6,600 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia, and so far 70 people have died with the virus. 



Special Section