The Water Research Commission (WRC) says an information sharing and progress meeting among water sector practitioners, universities and laboratories on July 8 on the use of wastewater surveillance to track the spread of Covid-19 means a nationwide programme is imminent.
Initiatives being undertaken by scientists from partner institutions have successfully extracted and detected coronavirus ribonucleic acid (RNA) from wastewater samples collected from various locations around the country. Such a programme is valuable in complementing national government’s clinical initiative on Covid-19 testing, the WRC notes.
"A nationwide initiative for the surveillance of Covid-19 spread in South African communities using a water and sanitation-focused approach as a means of supporting the current Covid-19 surveillance initiative can provide a near real-time tracking of the spread of Covid-19 in communities and also serve as an early warning for the resurgence of the virus and other waterborne disease outbreaks," it says.
"Wastewater-based epidemiology involves monitoring wastewater for the presence of the non-infectious remnants of the virus that are shed by infected people. Through the use of simulation models, the concentration of the coronavirus RNA in the wastewater, together with other parameters, can be used to estimate the Covid-19 infection loads in communities."
South Africa’s programme for wastewater surveillance for Covid-19 is among many other similar programmes that have been implemented across the world. This is not the first time that wastewater has been monitored as means of assessing community health in South Africa.
The current Covid-19 wastewater surveillance efforts by the various research groups in different provinces in South Africa show that there is capacity to upscale the initiative to a national scale monitoring programme. However, there is a need to coordinate and harmonise these activities to maximise the potential of the interventions in providing the much-needed support for decision-making in curbing the spread of the virus, the WRC notes.
"In a short space of time, South African surveillance initiatives and progress have put the country into the global space, and also shifted our objectives several notches towards a national surveillance programme," says WRC CEO Dhesigen Naidoo.
These encouraging developments and progress are moving the sector towards the reality of a surveillance programme and also opening pathways for surveillance of other diseases and pathogens of concern.
However, WRC water use and waste management executive manager Jay Bhagwan stresses the need for greater collaboration on methodologies for testing and sampling, as well as standardising and the sharing of data.