04 March 2021

An innovative sewage surveillance program that has proved a vital tool in efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 has won NSW Health and Sydney Water a key award in recognition of the program’s contribution and global significance.

The sewage surveillance program, a collaborative project by NSW Health and Sydney Water, detects molecular markers of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in sewage. Following its implementation in NSW in July 2020, the world-first research program has been replicated in other states and is highly respected worldwide.

At the NSW Water Awards on Friday 26 February, the surveillance program was awarded the Research and Development Excellence Award. The award recognises projects that positively contribute to the better use of water resources, or builds upon the knowledge of water technology, environment, sociology, economics or its culture aspects.

NSW Health’s Director of Health Protection, Dr Richard Broome, said the sewage testing program provided a crucial extra level of surveillance at a population level. The program had detected results from sewage that aligned closely with known cases of COVID-19, giving confidence in its reliability and sensitivity.

On several occasions, the program had provided an extra signal indicating the possibility of positive cases in a community, which had also proved helpful in encouraging local populations to get tested – assisting another key goal of public health efforts, Dr Broome said.

“The work being done by both the NSW Health Water Unit and Sydney Water cannot be understated – it’s been a key element of our response to the global pandemic,” Dr Broome said.

“To have their work be recognised and awarded is very humbling but truly well deserved.

“While we have now had several weeks of no locally acquired cases, COVID-19 remains a threat and this testing can provide an early warning in places without recent known cases.”

Sydney Water’s General Manager of Customer, Strategy and Engagement, Maryanne Graham, said the success of the program was testament to the skill and expertise of Sydney Water’s team of scientific and laboratory staff.

“It’s an absolute honour for Sydney Water to be recognised at this level, it’s also a privilege to support our community through our on-going relationship with NSW Health,” Ms Graham said.

“Sydney Water is very proud to have provided this critical navigation tool as we partner with NSW Health to stay one step ahead of COVID-19. So far we’ve tested over 1700 wastewater samples and found over 120 positive results.”

Wining team at the NSW Water Awards. Image courtesy of the Australian Water Association