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Photograph: Unsplash/Jan Antonin Kola

The federal government wants to use your poop to fight the coronavirus

Sewerage testing could be the unlikely secret weapon in Australia’s fight against community transmission

Written by
Maxim Boon

As the musical episode of the medical sitcom Scrubs once so shrewdly declared: everything comes down to poo. In a bid to track down unseen outbreaks, federal health experts are turning to the toilet, testing the nation’s sewerage for as yet unidentified clusters of Covid-19.

Health minister Greg Hunt said monitoring sewerage would be an effective early warning system, as fears of a widespread resurgence of the virus grow following new outbreaks in NSW and Victoria. While these tests won’t be able to track down specific individuals, they will be able to detect whether infections are present in an area around the size of an average suburb. As many instances of the disease result in mild or almost unnoticeable symptoms, it is highly likely that infectious people in the community might not independently seek testing. However, if the virus is found linked to a suburb that has no confirmed cases, authorities can begin a testing blitz in that area to find those infected people before community transmission gets out of control.

Peer-reviewed research has shown that the virus becomes detectable in human waste two to three days before the onset of noticeable symptoms, which means poo testing could just prove to be the ultimate secret weapon when it comes to finding viral “seeding” in the community. 

If images of unhappy contact tracers wading through rivers of poop with clothespegs on their noses are springing to mind, rest assured, the sophisticated testing techniques being employed don’t require any direct contact with the sewers. In fact, sewerage testing methods have been perfected in Australia for quite some time. Some of the most extensive surveys of drug use in the country have been conducted via sewage analysis, so the techniques are well understood and, mercifully, not too hands-on.

Community transmission continues to be a major challenge in Australia. Here's everything you need to know to go out safely.

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