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SU to implement a wastewater surveillance platform to detect COVID-19 outbreaks on campus
Author: Wiida Fourie-Basson
Published: 27/05/2021

Stellenbosch University (SU) plans to implement a wastewater-based surveillance platform to detect institutional SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks on two of its campuses.

“This flows from the institution's commitment to do everything realistically possible to protect the campus community", says Prof Gideon Wolfaardt, director of the Stellenbosch University Water Institute (SUWI) and professor in the Department of Microbiology.

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 United Kingdom's Newton Fund. The campus-based platform will be supported by a grant from Prof Eugene Cloete, Vice-Rector: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies.

For the two Stellenbosch University campuses, passive sampling devices will be placed at specific settings to sample sewer lines from student residences on certain days of the week.

Dr Edward Archer, a research associate in the Department of Microbiology, says the wastewater-based platform on campus 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 ares more prevalent in younger individuals, it will allow for the early detection of potential infection 'hotspots'," he explains.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa in 2020, he has been working with Prof Wolfgang Preiser from SU's Medical Virology Division and Dr Rabia Johnson, deputy-director of the MRC's Biomedical Research and Innovation Platform (BRIP), to pilot the concept at SU's Tygerberg campus.

How does the method 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," Dr Archer explains.

“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."

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 2020 to evaluate the spread of COVID-19 in communities through wastewaster-based epidemiology.

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

  • For more information about these efforts, listen to the Science Café Stellenbosch talk about “Developing a risk prediction platform for COVID-19 using sewage" with Prof Wolfgang Preiser and Dr Edward Archer from Stellenbosch University, and Dr Rubia Johnson from the Medical Research Council, on 19 May 2021. Science Café Stellenbosch in an initiative of SU's Faculty of Science to promote the discussion of scientific issues in a language that everyone can understand.