COVID-19 POLICY-MAKING — FROM OUR POO
GreenHill Laboratories becomes the first contract laboratory in South Africa to detect SARS-CoV-2 RNA in sewage as part of a commercial virus risk forensic service
[Hilton, KwaZulu-Natal, July 2020] GreenHill Laboratories was part of history when it became the first contract laboratory in Africa to extract and detect SARS-CoV-2 RNA from sewage early in June 2020 as part of a full-service virus risk forensic programme. The process involves taking bulk, composite samples through to a laboratory capable of meeting the needs of clients in both the public and private sectors.
The Proof of Concept was the culmination of a team effort spearheaded by Prof. Anthony Turton of the University of the Free State and Amanzi-4-All, coordinated by Mr. Neil Madgwick of Praecautio, with sampling undertaken by Mr. Kevin Lindsay of Instru-Serve. The Impuma Group, through Amanzi-4-All, was instrumental in the sponsorship of the trial.
The pilot trial took sewage samples from five wastewater treatment works (WWTW) based in Gauteng that were transported to GreenHill Laboratories in Hilton, KZN (the town where the first South African case of COVID-19 was identified).
The samples were collected using automatic samplers over a period of 24 hours to optimise statistical rigour in the results.
Under the leadership of GreenHill Laboratories’ director, Dr. Shaun Groenink, the samples were processed and analysed by principal molecular biologist, Dr. Cara-Lesley Bartlett. The viral RNA was extracted and identified based on protocols published by the Dutch KWR Water Research Institute and the USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The detection by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is identical to the method being used in many medical pathology laboratories around the world. It is based on the N1 and N2 regions of the nucleocapsid gene of the virus. PCR is the amplification of small amounts of specific RNA (after transcription to DNA) to detectable levels that are then visualised by fluorescence.
Three of the five samples yielded detectable levels of viral RNA, with the laboratory working on procedures to increase the sensitivity of the test. The same five WWTWs were resampled and analysed with results consistent with expectations.
The Proof of Concept delivered by GreenHill Laboratories demonstrates that:
1. COVID-19 can be detected in wastewater
2. South Africa has the capability for this testing – samples do not have to be sent to other countries for testing
3. Statistically relevant sampling and timeous delivery to the laboratory are possible
4. Existing protocols and kits have been used – there is no need to develop specific kits
The establishment of a Proof of Concept facilitates the development of additional parameters, such as the quantification of viral load. This additional data can be used to monitor community-wide viral load, and assess whether various mitigation strategies are working or not.
Through collaborative partnerships, the logistical supply chain from point of sample to the laboratory can now handle national-level upscaling, and Amanzi-4-All can offer this service to any client immediately, including both the public and private sectors. There has been interest in this technology from a range of role players in North America, Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia and the South African government.
Transforming the approach to managing COVID-19 in South Africa and across the continent
The capacity of this South African laboratory to detect SARS-CoV-2 in sewage expedites its application by epidemiologists, public health scientists and those charged with looking after the health and safety of students, visitors and employees. This includes predicting and monitoring potential COVID-19 hotspots to focus intervention by decision-makers and public health officials in these areas, as well as assessing the true extent of SARS-CoV-2 infections.
These new sampling and testing capabilities can provide robust information to both government and private sector decision-makers in their efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus while reopening the economy.
Rapid deployment across all sectors of society is key to limiting the pandemic’s effects
The team is currently expanding and optimising the value chain to include individual buildings, schools, mines and businesses.
Greenhill Laboratories’ Chairman Mr. Austin Hlongwane says: “I would personally like to commend the GreenHill Laboratories team for all the diligent effort that they have put into this project. Their dedication, desire to experiment, out-of-the-box thinking and personal passion is unparalleled. As a result, I am hopeful for positive outcomes in the fight against COVID-19.”
GreenHill Laboratories is honoured to be a part of this project and looks forward to participating in the management of COVID-19 in South Africa. The laboratory will continue to develop and refine these protocols and expand on their scope and application.
Pictured here L-R: Dr Dr. Cara-Lesley Bartlett with Dr. Shaun Groenink.