Coronavirus can be detected in wastewater, pioneering Kiwi scientists reveal

The Kiwi scientists who pioneered a wastewater sampling system to detect and track COVID-19 in New Zealand say it's worked - but there's room for improvement.

The Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) tested the method in April by collecting wastewater samples from areas in New Zealand known to have coronavirus cases.

While detecting the virus was not unexpected, due to the presence of known cases, only very low levels of coronavirus were detected in the samples.

"This discovery demonstrates that while it is possible to detect the virus, more work needs to be done to improve the concentration and detection methods, and design appropriate sampling strategies," the ESR said in a media release.

ESR says wastewater testing allows them to better understand the virus’ presence, prevalence and distribution within our population, and has the ability to function as an "early warning monitoring tool" for COVID-19 in New Zealand.

"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," Dr Brett Cowan, ESR's chief scientist, said last month.

"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."

ESR plans to share its findings with the global wastewater science community, in hopes it will contribute to worldwide efforts to learn about the spread of COVID-19 within communities.

It is also using data from the samples to track a number of other viruses, pathogens and substances - which ESR says will "provide communities with insights into their wellbeing to inform decision-making at a national, regional and local level".

Coronavirus has caused a major health and economic crisis in New Zealand. So far, we have 1497 positive cases and 21 people have died - although the number of active cases has fallen every day for several weeks.