The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a flurry of activities within the global science community all geared towards preventing further transmission of the virus. South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) is one of those organisations that have stepped up by establishing the SARS-CoV-2 Wastewater Surveillance Dashboard.
The system is a wastewater-based early warning system for COVID-19 in various parts of the country. According to SAMRC media statement, tracking of wastewater plays a key role in the development of early warning systems (EWS) for various enteric viruses. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, SARS-CoV-2 RNA has been successfully isolated and quantified in the wastewater of a growing number of countries.
The advantage of the new system is than even though the focus is currently focused on COVID-19, it has broader application to develop an early warning system for diseases such Hepatitis A, measles and Norovirus.
After the start of the pandemic, the SAMRC marshalled all its five research units to design and co-ordinate the project. These include Environment and Health Research Unit, the Biomedical Research and Innovation Platform, the Tuberculosis Platform, the Genomics Centre and the Biostatistics Unit. The team has already completed laboratory and field proof of concept studies and is now embarking on the full implementation of longer-term surveillance system in high risk settings.
The council has also roped in international advisors and external academic partners to meets its goals of establishing the project in multiple provinces across the country. These are, among others, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in US, and the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation.
SAMRC president and chief executive officer, Professor Glenda Gray said: “We are very excited about the prospect of curbing COVID-19 transmission and saving lives using this technology, especially when undertaken in partnership with public health officials.” Gray said monitoring wastewater enables SAMRC to predict a rise in COVID-19 cases within a week or more before it is usually detectable through human testing.
Professor Renee Street from the SAMRC’s Environment & Health Research Unit said they are currently rolling out monitoring sites in Cape Town, the Breede River Valley in the Western Cape, the Mopani and Vhembe District in Limpopo and the OR Tambo and Amathole Districts in the Eastern Cape. She said they would soon be adding Gauteng to the list of provinces earmarked for the project.
Street also indicated that SAMRC will soon be launching a dashboard on its website so that the public will be able to freely check on findings at some of the study sites – the dashboard will be updated on a weekly basis.
“In so doing we hope that relevant public health authorities will be able to use the results to mount timeous interventions to reduce community spread of COVID-19, such as alerts to health professionals, scaled up public awareness programmes on the importance of wearing face masks, physical distancing and hand hygiene, as well as increased testing and tracing,” added Street.
Professor Angela Mathee, who is also from the same unit as Street, said: “Through the SAMRC wastewater monitoring project we have already been able to alert public health officials in the City of Cape Town and the Breede River Valley of spikes in SARS-CoV-2 RNA levels, which gives them valuable time to prepare for increases in COVID-19 cases and to intervene wherever possible.” She added that a major advantage of wastewater monitoring is that it includes symptomatic as well as asymptomatic cases in a community.
The SAMRC’s Biomedical Research Innovation Platform (BRIP) established methods for SARS CoV-2 RNA detection in wastewater and is also responsible for training partner institutions with the focus being on the Historically Disadvantaged Institutions (HDIs).
SAMRC’s executive committee member, Dr Mongezi Mdhluli said: “Capacity development is a key element of the project – students and staff from the Universities of Venda and Fort Hare have already been trained in the laboratory methods while trainees from Sefako Makgatho and Walter Sisulu Universities will soon join this group.”
Although the project is mainly led and funded by the SAMRC, it also received support from the Solidarity Fund, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation.