Australian experts will pick through poo in a trial they hope will allow them to detect disease outbreaks early and inform the road out of the coronavirus lockdown.
Researchers at the Australian National University hope to replicate results out of the Netherlands that found coronavirus traces in sewage long before cases of the virus were officially reported.
Sewage could soon be used to identify coronavirus outbreaks early on.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
The study comes as Health Minister Greg Hunt identified early tracing as key to relaxing social distancing measures, saying the study had the potential to improve Australia's "rapid response capability".
An ANU epidemiologist working on the project said it could become a crucial data point in debates over what type of social distancing measures to relax, and where.
"If we can start detecting it, it may be a way that we can evaluate the impact of easing the restrictions," Dr Aparna Lal said.
Some studies on coronavirus in sewage suggest the disease can be identified in faeces within three days of infection, while symptoms can sometimes appear more than a week later.
Sewage plants are required to take daily samples, the epidemiologist said, which meant additional testing for coronavirus was inexpensive.
The study will take samples of Canberra sewage and examine them in labs at the ANU John Curtin School of Medical Research, where it will be centrifuged and concentrated before experts can determine whether the matter includes traces of coronavirus.
It is not known whether a rough number of coronavirus cases can be determined from examining the sewage.
Australian waste is already tested under a program that attempts to identify recreational drug use around the country.
The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission predicted in March that the nation spent $11 billion last year on illicit drugs.
New Zealand and the United States are among more than a dozen countries looking to replicate the Dutch findings.
"What this study will do is let us see whether sewage could be used to continuously monitor the presence of the virus in the community even when case numbers go down," Dr Lal said.
"This work will also tell us if sewage monitoring can serve as a warning system to give us a heads up before case numbers go up."
Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said Australia's coronavirus restrictions could be reviewed by the end of the month as the country recorded just 33 new cases through Easter Sunday.
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