SU to implement a wastewater surveillance platform to detect Covid-19 outbreaks on campus

SU to implement a wastewater surveillance platform to detect Covid-19 outbreaks on campus


STELLENBOSCH University (SU) has announced that it plans to implement a wastewater-based surveillance platform to detect outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2 on two of its campuses.

This comes as the country battles a third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The wastewater-based surveillance platform has been developed in collaboration with researchers from the University of Bath, in partnership with the South African Medical Research Council (MRC), and funded by the UK’s Newton Fund. The campus-based platform will be supported by a grant from Professor Eugene Cloete, the Vice-Rector: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies.

The university said the passive sampling devices will be placed at specific locations on the two campuses to sample sewer lines from student residences on certain days of the week.

Dr Edward Archer, a research associate in the Department of Microbiology, said the wastewater-based platform will serve as an additional measure to increase and improve surveillance of defined communities, such as campus residences.

“Firstly, it is impossible to do screening tests on every student at regular, short intervals. Secondly, as asymptomatic infections are more prevalent in younger individuals, it will allow for the early detection of potential infection ‘hotspots’,” he said.

Since the outbreak, Archer, Professor Wolfgang Preiser from SU’s Medical Virology Division and Dr Rabia Johnson, deputy-director of the MRC’s Biomedical Research and Innovation Platform, have been working to pilot the concept at SU’s Tygerberg campus.

How does it work?

Early on in the global Covid-19 pandemic, it was established that genetic material of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, consisting of RNA genomic fragments, passes through the digestive system of infected persons, landing up in their faeces.

“These genomic fragments serve as a molecular fingerprint of the original virus, regardless of whether an infected individual presents with symptoms or not. Higher levels of viral RNA in wastewater treatment works therefore can serve as a valuable early warning system for a rise in the number of infections. It can also be used to evaluate the spread of the disease in communities.

“The pilot project at the Tygerberg campus proved that data obtained through this method allowed us to pinpoint blocks or even buildings where infected individuals lived or worked,” Archer said.

National environmental surveillance system

The researchers are also involved with SACCESS, the South African Collaborative Covid-19 Environmental Surveillance System. This network, consisting of researchers, health-care practitioners and epidemiologists, was established in April last year to evaluate the spread of Covid-19 in communities through wastewater-based epidemiology.

As part of this network, Archer and Preiser have been working with the MRC to perform routine community-wide wastewater surveillance for the Cape Town metropolitan area and Stellenbosch.

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