A key feature of Australia’s COVID-19 response has been testing for traces of the virus in wastewater.

The innovative technique has allowed authorities an extra insight on where the virus might be, without having to actually test members of the public.

Wastewater monitoring has been used for years to estimate levels of illicit drug use in Australia. But the focus has now shifted to methods of testing wastewater for COVID-19.

The approach can detect a single infected person in a catchment of 100,000. However, there is no standard approach, leaving different teams testing wastewater in different places doing things differently.

Australia’s National Measurement Institute (NMI), together with Water Research Australia (WaterRA), is playing a vital role in ensuring certainty in sewage testing for SARS-CoV-2. It is helping to create a more standard approach.

The National Measurement Institute (NMI) is the Australian Government’s national authority on measurement. Its role is to help develop and maintain Australia’s physical, chemical and biological measurement standards.

It has become a key priority of the WaterRA’s ColoSSoS Project, and the NMI is helping enhance the tests.

ColoSSoS aims to generate results from sewage testing for SARS-CoV-2 that can be integrated with health data for COVID-19 on a national basis to support governments’ responses.

Reference materials developed by NMI in Sydney, using inactivated virus material prepared by the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory (VIDRL) in Melbourne, will enable laboratories across Australia and NZ involved with the ColoSSoS Project to understand how well their sewage testing methods work, particularly at low levels of SARS-CoV-2, and how much results can vary due to the test methods used.

The material will be used for calibration, understanding the limits of quantification and developing standard curves for sewage testing laboratories. NMI will also oversee an interlaboratory study by supplying ‘standard sewage’ and calibrants to the participating laboratories.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, sewage testing will help predict when and where the next outbreak might occur, providing a vital early warning signal.