Australian researchers said on Thursday they expect to roll out wide testing of raw sewage for the presence of coronavirus within weeks to help pinpoint communities at risk, after a successful regional pilot.
The trial in Queensland by national science agency CSIRO and the University of Queensland will be used to develop a surveillance system researchers said will help officials when they start to wind back restrictions on public movement.
The new project utilizes an existing system under which crime agencies monitor wastewater, covering about 57 percent of the population, to detect the presence of illicit drugs in Australian cities.
The strict measures have helped slow growth in the daily rate of new infections drastically to low single digits, from about 25 percent several weeks ago, for a total of about 6,500 infections, including 63 deaths.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday those restrictions would stay in place for at least another month, although officials have begun talking about how to start a wind-back.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said a wider detection regime including sewage sampling would help show whether there were COVID-19 cases in the broader community.
University of Queensland professor Kevin Thomas, one of the researchers on the sewage trial, said it was likely national testing would be achieved “in a matter of weeks.”
Remote and regional communities, where it is more difficult for health authorities to conduct traditional swab tests, could particularly stand to benefit, he said.
Bertsch said sewage sampling could be conducted daily, and while the first tests would be taken at wastewater treatment plants, there was potential to take sampling “further up the pipe” to a suburb level by going down neighborhood man-holes.
Bertsch said Chinese data showed the virus could be detected in feces within three days, quicker than many cases were being detected with conventional tests.