A new method of disease detection may be in the works for COVID-19, and from an unlikely source, as it involves getting down and dirty. Researchers at the Australian National University have discovered that traces of COVID-19 can be detected through an infected person’s excrement before they start to exhibit other, more definitive flu-like symptoms. This provides an interesting alternative method of early detection that does not necessarily entail getting up close and personal with a potentially infected person, but rather shifts the focus to the rougher end of the stick. The idea behind this detection method is to establish areas or communities that have a high prevalence of the virus and a sustainable method of monitoring the infection numbers even after they start to subside.
Dr Aparna Lal, an epidemiologist believes that if there is systematic early detection through sewage, “it may be a way that we can evaluate the impact of easing the restrictions. 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. 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.” This is not the first time that faeces have been the focal point for a study such as this. Research done in the Netherlands has shown similar results through the early detection of COVID-19 through faecal matter before the cases were officially classified and reported.
The Australian-based study came about as part of an endeavour by Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt to ensure that the relaxation of lockdown or social distancing measures is well founded and in order to improve “Australia’s rapid response capabilit[ies].” Some of the study’s early findings indicate that the virus can be “identified in faeces within three days of infection, while symptoms can sometimes appear more than a week later.” The pandemic poo study in Australia is also proving to be a potentially more cost effective method of detection due to the fact that most sewage plants are required to take daily samples as part of a program aimed at monitoring illicit recreational drug use across the country.
Australia is one of several countries including the United States and New Zealand to name a few that have taken a page out of the Netherlands’ book when it comes to preventative poo-based pandemic measures. The hope is that by separating the scary from the stinky, sewage monitoring will provide a sustainable way to stay on top of any potential pandemic resurgence and help take a load off other methods of testing and ultimately avoid a pandemic “Déjà Poo” scenario.
*Disclaimer: all poo puns definitely intended.