UKZN Alumni Pioneer Detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in Sewage
GreenHill Laboratories in Hilton, KwaZulu-Natal, where South Africa’s first case of COVID-19 was detected, is the first contract laboratory in Africa to extract and detect SARS-CoV-2 RNA from sewage, a feat accomplished in early June as part of a full-service virus risk forensic programme, and involving the work of three UKZN alumni.
The Proof of Concept delivered by GreenHill Laboratories involved collaborative work with Professor Anthony Turton of the University of the Free State and Amanzi-4-All, co-ordinated by Mr Neil Madgwick of Praecautio, with sampling undertaken by Mr Kevin Lindsay of Instru-Serve, and instrumental sponsorship of the trial from the Impuma Group through Amanzi-4-All.
Working with samples taken under strict conditions from wastewater treatment plants in Gauteng, GreenHill Laboratories director Dr Shaun Groenink oversaw the processing and analysis of the samples by principal Molecular Biologist Dr Cara-Lesley Bartlett. They used protocols published by the Dutch KWR Water Research Institute and the USA’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention to extract and identify the viral RNA, applying polymerase chain reaction in the detection process.
Detectable levels of viral RNA were picked up in three of the five samples and procedures were developed to enhance the sensitivity of the test. The Proof of Concept they developed demonstrated that COVID-19 can be detected in wastewater; South Africa has the capability for this testing; statistically relevant sampling and timeous delivery to the laboratory are possible; and existing protocols and kits can be used without the need to develop new ones.
The team said that using the Proof of Concept to develop additional parameters could enable community-wide viral load to be monitored in order to assess whether or not various mitigation strategies are working, and this service can now be scaled up and offered to both the public and private sectors.
Interest has been expressed in this technology by a range of role players in North America, Africa, the Middle East, and South East Asia and the South African government.
These sampling and testing capabilities could play an important role in providing robust information to both government and private sector decision-makers in their efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus while reopening the economy. They will assist in assessing the true extent of SARS-CoV-2 infections, especially as more testing is done and the national database grows, and in predicting and monitoring potential COVID-19 hotspots to focus interventions.
The laboratory will continue to develop and refine these protocols and expand on their scope and application. They say rapid deployment of this kind of sampling and testing across all sectors of society is key to limiting the pandemic’s effects.
Madgwick, Groenink and Bartlett all graduated from UKZN; Madgwick with his BScAgric in Microbiology, Groenink with his undergraduate and honours degrees in Biochemistry, his Master’s in Animal Sciences and his PhD in Biochemistry, and Bartlett with her undergraduate, Honours and Master’s degrees in Biochemistry. She obtained her PhD in Internal Medicine from Stellenbosch University.
Words: Christine Cuénod