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Jaime-Lee Gardner
072 171 1979

Louise Martin
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Hunting SARS-Cov-2

A simple way to find out if there is coronavirus in your estate

By Jennifer Stern and Anthony Turton

, |

Hunting SARS-Cov-2

A simple way to find out if there is coronavirus in your estate

By Jennifer Stern and Anthony Turton

, |

3 min read

You know you need to manage COVID-19 but you can’t manage what you can’t measure. So how do you measure the extent of SARS-Cov-2 infection in your estate? Sounds like a long, involved process, but it isn’t. In fact, it can be done really simply.

Mass testing for SARS-CoV-2

There’s been a lot of talk about mass testing for COVID-19. It’s important to get the figures right, it’s important to know where the concentrations of infection are, and it is – of course – also important to identify individuals who are infected.

Now all this sounds very time-consuming, very expensive, and very intrusive. You can just imagine having someone marching around your estate taking nasal swabs from everyone. Not a nice thought – and, anyhow, the present shortage of test kits is likely to continue.

But the good news is that there is a much easier, cheaper, quicker and more effective way – and it really is mass testing.

Community testing

Real mass testing, rather than testing each individual in a suburb, building or estate, is about testing the community as a whole. That way you can rapidly assess whether there is a significant rate of infection, and – if there is – plan to do more focused testing. The good news flip side of that, of course, is that – if there is no infection, or if it is very low – you can tweak your management and/or marketing accordingly. And where this gets really exciting is that can you can pick up evidence of infection before anyone shows symptoms.

How it works in principle

Testing a community is similar to testing individuals. Think about it. If you suspect you have an infection, you (or your doctor) will send a sample of blood, urine, faeces, saliva or whatever to a lab that will then test for the suspected pathogen. Testing communities is exactly the same. But here’s where it gets interesting. Pioneering research in the Netherlands has shown that the RNA of SARS-CoV-2 survives in sewerage and can be accurately detected before people actually become sick. RNA is the dead genetic material that remains after you – for example – kill and remove the virus by washing your hands with soap and water. The Dutch protocol has been successfully adapted to South African conditions in a proof-of-concept trial. So, at a community level, you sample the sewerage as it leaves the estate/building/whatever, and then test for SARS-CoV-2 – or any other pathogen or substance.

How it works in practice

To ascertain the level of infection in your estate or building, the contractors will attach a small sampling station (about the size of a briefcase) to the sewerage outlet, and will then collect weekly samples. This achieves two things. It shows the presence (or absence) of SARS-CoV-2 RNA and, if found, can compare it to previous sampling runs to determine if the infection is increasing or decreasing in the area being sampled. The weekly sample, which is taken over a 24-hour cycle, will be subjected to a polymerase chain reaction (PCR), in which any existing RNA (usually very small quantities) is amplified and positively identified as being SARS-CoV-2. The number of amplifications needed to achieve a mathematically defined threshold indicates the total viral load being carried by the sewerage, which gives an accurate indicator of the presence of the virus. This can point to spreading that might be caused by asymptomatic people within the catchment area of the test point. Naturally, one would keep accurate records for comparison, which will indicate whether infection is increasing, decreasing or remaining constant.

It’s ready to roll out

A consortium of service providers has pooled their expertise to develop a virus risk forensic service that can be offered to clients on a contract basis. This would include the installation of a bulk sampler at the appropriate place in the sewer network, and the logistical management of weekly sampling. The protocol for sampling is highly precise, because specimens can easily be contaminated if handled incorrectly. So, in order for the results to be forensically valid, the logistical supply chain is designed to preserve and document the chain of custody from the sampling point all the way to the certified laboratory, which may be some distance away.

This service is currently being rolled out in the mining sector, and will soon be offered to both commercial and residential real estate managers. It is possible to do a one-off test, but it is of limited value and is costly, so it’s not a wise choice.

For a free quote, contact Kevin Lindsay, who can arrange a site visit to assess the location and security of the sampling point, and the complexity of accessing the power source needed to sustain the bulk sampler.

It’s not just for COVID-19

Although COVID-19 will be with us for quite a while, it will, eventually, fade into the background. But there are other applications of the system. It could be used to test for toxins, drug use or any other infection, such as TB or perhaps measles. Or something else you haven’t yet thought of, just like you hadn’t thought of COVID-19 six months ago.

Contact Kevin Lindsay, 082 941 8656,

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