South Africa: Wastewater Surveillance Is an Early-Warning System for Covid-19 Outbreaks


Research sampling carried out by the Water Research Commission has found very high levels of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in human faeces in water downstream of wastewater treatment plants. This is a critical tool in predicting outbreaks and monitoring infection levels.

In July, we wrote and recommended in Daily Maverick on South Africa needing a Covid-19 wastewater and water-quality surveillance programme. This was after the Water Research Commission (WRC) and Salga partnership's May launch of the water quality (wastewater and non-sewer) national surveillance programme aimed to complement national initiatives in dealing with the pandemic.

The objective of this programme was to pilot and facilitate the implementation of a nationwide initiative for the surveillance of Covid-19 spread in South African communities using a water and sanitation-focused approach to support the current Covid-19 surveillance initiatives, and also to serve as an early warning for the resurgence of the virus and other waterborne disease outbreaks.

Screening municipal wastewater and environmental water quality as an epidemiological tool for viruses is not a new concept and has been used to help inform broader infectious disease epidemiological surveillance and mitigation efforts such as the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Environmental surveillance has also been used and recommended for other...

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