Coronavirus: New Zealand scientists pioneer wastewater testing to track COVID-19's prevalence

A New Zealand science agency is hopeful it will soon be able to detect COVID-19 in wastewater, bringing crucial insights to our battle with the disease.

The Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) is in the process of setting up a project which it hopes will allow it to track the prevalence and distribution of coronavirus in New Zealand.

COVID-19 testing is currently a hot topic in New Zealand, with critics suggesting not enough tests are being carried out - so the arrival of this new methodology will be a welcome addition to efforts to stymie the outbreak.

If the project is a success, ESR hopes to have a better understanding of the role environmental monitoring can have in tracking COVID-19 over time.

"By detecting and monitoring coronavirus in wastewater, we could potentially see how effective eradication is, gauge changes in different regions, as well as better understand the patterns of community transmission," says Dr Brett Cowan, ESR's chief scientist.

"While wastewater-based epidemiology is still seen as an emerging science, we're already using it to better understand the health and wellbeing of our communities."

But Dr Cowan admits coronavirus, being a respiratory disease, is unlikely to be spread by contaminated faeces and thus levels of COVID-19 will be low and hard to detect.

"It’s likely the virus will not last long in wastewater as digestive juices in the body and organisms in the sewage will rapidly break it down. This also means there’s very little risk of getting COVID-19 from wastewater,” he explained.

"But the research is important; we're collaborating with research organisations here and internationally and contributing to the global effort to learn more about coronavirus and ultimately find a vaccination."

Coronavirus has caused a major health and economic crisis in New Zealand.

So far, we have 1160 positive cases and one person has died - but the growth of the disease appears to be levelling off as a result of our nationwide lockdown.