Sudhi Payyappat admits that it isn’t the most glamorous job.
The microbiologist spends his working days in a small scientific laboratory surrounded by small waste water bottles – the stuff we flush down the toilet.
But what the role lacks in glamor it makes up for in importance.
Mr Payyappat and his small team of four have led the country across what medical experts believe is a crucial part of the country’s response to the coronavirus: testing our wastewater for COVID-19.
The ABC got an exclusive look at Mr. Payyappat’s lab in Sydney’s suburbs and the process behind the tests.
The ABC visited just days before the lab found virus fragments at two sewage pumping stations on Thursday, triggering a warning for 18,500 residents of west Sydney to get tested for COVID.
And as Australian cases continue to decline and complacency sets in, experts say Mr. Payyappat’s team, who shared his testing method across the country as part of what is known as the “ColoSSoS Project”, will become even more important.
It starts out simple enough.
A worker in full PPE will do what is perhaps the simplest task: collecting the water.
The smell is there – a danger of working with raw sewage – but for Aaron Duncan, it’s all just part of the job.
The sample, kept in a small 500 ml water bottle, is placed in an esky on ice to keep cool in the back of a truck.
The sample is then driven by Mr. Duncan across Sydney Harbor to the still-on-ice laboratory where it is received by a general water quality analyst.
“We’ll check the temperature on arrival,” Mr. Payyappat told ABC.
“And we don’t take them.”
After the bottle is rolled into the laboratory, in all of its eerie brown beauty, it is placed in a biohazardous cabinet for safe handling.
The 500 ml sample is “shaken very well” to make sure it is mixed and a 100 ml sample is taken.
Then it gets complicated.
Mr. Payyappat said that hydrochloric acid was added to the 100 ml sample to bring the pH down to “3”.
“That’s the isoelectric point: the virus gets charged and positively charged,” he said.
“This sample is filtered through a negatively charged membrane and the membrane captures the virus.”
The membrane filtration process has been identified as the most effective method by Mr. Payyappat and is now being used by other ColoSSoS project members in Queensland, ACT and Victoria, where wastewater tests are carried out on a regular basis such as in Sydney.
But the process isn’t over yet.
The membrane then goes to another part of the laboratory to extract the genetic material of the virus.
“We separate the virus from the membrane, break it open and release so-called nucleic acids,” he said.
“The membrane is then chopped up and placed in a tube.”
The tube is placed in a machine known as a bead beater, which vibrates tiny pearls inside the tube, causing viruses to be released from the membrane and broken down.
“Everything in the cell comes out. It is washed, the acid is separated off and placed in a small tube with pure water.
“Then the final step is to check if the genetic markers of COVID are present in the sample.
“If it is present, millions of ‘copies’ will be made to enable detection and the device will tell you how many copies of the virus molecule fragment are in the sample. And we pass the information on to NSW Health. “
Around 80 samples from Sydney’s 25 sewage treatment plants are tested weekly and intermittent tests from 40 sewage treatment plants in the NSW region are tested weekly.
Wastewater tests establish a “strong correlation”
Peter Collignon, a professor of microbiology at the Australian National University, said wastewater testing was synonymous with targeted “public health monitoring” of the population.
“So if you look at the sewage and find COVID or the viral debris of COVID, you can actually say, hey, there is probably still potential COVID in this area, even though we didn’t discover it [through testing],” he said.
“So you are advocating this area more to get more testing, you have more surveillance, you are putting more people into public health, and the whole point is to keep the virus at a very low level or to get rid of it, if we can, it will die out.
“And also to know very quickly whether it will come back.”
Multiple discoveries have been made in Victoria and regular tests in the ACT have not revealed any trace of the virus, giving authorities more confidence in allowing residents of the capital to tour the country.
Western Australia, one of the last states to join, started its process last week.
It was “critical” in the fight against COVID in NSW, according to Kerry Chant, NSW’s chief medical officer.
“We’re still learning how sensitive it is and what factors can reduce its sensitivity, such as: B. Rain, “said Dr. Chant.
“But we have [seen] a strong correlation between test results and what we know [through sewage testing] in the catchment areas. “
NSW Health uses the data to identify smaller service areas, a subset of those larger service areas, and to provide alerts to 10,000 people.
Thursday’s warning was a little bigger and triggered a request for 18,000 residents in western Sydney to be tested.
Research shows that people release viruses into their stool (feces) for anywhere from four weeks to eight weeks.
Other research showed that around two-thirds of people with COVID-19 excrete it through their intestines, which is known as “dandruff”.
Dr. Chant said the greatest “shedding” phase was when a person first showed symptoms.
But there are still possible inaccuracies.
“We can’t be 100 percent sure when someone is no longer contagious,” she said.
“You could shed the virus, but that doesn’t necessarily mean an infection can occur.
“It’s a critical part of our response to COVID-19.”
Back at the lab, Mr. Payyappat said that wastewater could be a “very difficult matrix to crack” and requires a “very delicate method” to identify it.
With more than 20 years of experience detecting viruses in wastewater, he said he was confident they would identify as much as possible.
And while he agreed it wasn’t the most glamorous job, Mr Payyappat said that all of his friends and family understood and appreciated the importance of it.
“And my wife actually works in a different lab for Sydney Water, so she understands and is very supportive.
“And my daughter is studying science. That helped.
“But you know, it’s important, we’ve been working hard since March and it’s been a great effort from everyone.”
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