WRC moves wastewater surveillance programme into pilot phase

3rd November 2020 By: Natasha Odendaal - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

The Water Research Commission’s (WRC’s) emerging national wastewater surveillance programme has reached a milestone as it moves from the first phase proof-of-concept into a “catalysing” pilot phase.

The WRC launched the first stage towards the development of a national wastewater surveillance programme in May to track the prevalence of the virus in communities through wastewater surveillance and monitoring.

The tracing of the Covid-19 spread in sewered wastewater treatment systems and non-sewered sanitation systems provides information that could track and trace and signal hotspots of community transmissions in developing regions that may not be able to afford or implement mass screening programmes to uncover new infections and provide early warning of resurgence of the outbreak.

The proof-of-concept phase, based on a continuous five weeks of weekly sampling of several wastewater treatment plants in hotspot metropolitans in Gauteng, the Western Cape, the Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, led to the detection of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2, ribonucleic acid fragments in faeces within the wastewater and sanitation environment. No infective strain has been confirmed as yet.

“The results are giving us enough rationale to expand and apply some of the methods that we have already tweaked and fine-tuned so that we can expand the sampling, include more municipalities, and pair this with capacity building as we bring more laboratories on board,” said WRC drinking water quality and treatment research manager Dr Nonhlanhla Kalebaila.

“This is a turning point in our efforts around moving from the first phase in establishing the science and the methodologies into this pilot phase of organising the logistics around a more proper wastewater-based surveillance initiative,” added WRC water use and waste management executive manager Jay Bhagwan, kicking off the launch of the second phase of the national wastewater surveillance programme in South Africa.

In the second phase, a wider network for pilot scale testing will be implemented across pre-defined communities in South Africa, continued National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) Centre for Vaccines and Immunology head Dr Melinda Suchard.

The pilot phase of the national scale-up in the next six to 12 months will target urban metropolitan areas, including several wastewater plants throughout Johannesburg, Tshwane, Ekurhuleni, eThekwini, the City of Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Buffalo City.

The NICD, in partnership with the WRC will coordinate the network of participating laboratories, while the Department of Health (DoH), in collaboration with municipalities and other stakeholders, will be responsible for site selection in each province, she said.

The data will be provided to the National Covid-19 Incident Management Team at the DoH.

“This is a very significant and important development for South Africa and puts us among the global leaders in science and development of Covid-19 surveillance. This outcome is supported by several other initiatives in the country confirming this situation.

“More so this is evidence and confidence that wastewater and water quality surveillance can complement the national individual testing programme and has thus created the impetus to move into a pilot initiative.”