Sewage contains virus
Sewage contains virus

Fire in the hole — COVID breakthrough

Riley Riley

Scientists at Melbourne’s Monash University have come up with a new weapon in the fight against the COVID-19 virus.

Dubbed the ‘sewage submarine’ or ‘Torpedo Passive Sampler’, the simple, cost-effective and portable device is shaped like a torpedo.

It has been successful in detecting SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater in Victoria.

The device is a fraction of the cost of current methods, at just $20 versus more than $5000 for an automatic sampler.

It’s made of cotton buds, medical gauze swabs and lab grade electronegative membranes — all housed in a narrow 3D printed shell.

The passive samplers were placed across eight study sites in Victoria.

They ranged from systems that collected the wastewater of 260 residents and staff near an aged care facility, to Melbourne’s largest sewage treatment plant that pools wastewater from more than 2 million residents.

Seven of the eight sites were in metropolitan Melbourne, with the other in Colac — all were chosen because they had known cases of COVID-19 during the second wave of infections.

Analysis showed success in detecting SARS-CoV-2 using passive sampling.

The idea came from Melbourne Water’s Dr Nicholas Crosbie, who in turn was inspired by the classical work of Dr Brendan Moore (investor of the so-called ‘Moore Swab’).

It’s great news for Australian state and territory governments, and countries across the world, because the intellectual property for the ‘Torpedo Passive Sampler’ is open and 3D printing files are able to be shared for immediate use.

In just five months, more than 2500 ‘Torpedo Passive Samplers’ have been exported and used in all states and territories of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Netherlands, and are soon to arrive in the USA and Indonesia.

COVID Torpedo Device
The ‘sewage submarine’ or ‘Torpedo Passive Sampler.’

Development was conducted by researchers at Monash University’s Department of Civil Engineering, in partnership with a consortium of universities and industry locally and internationally.

Lead author, Associate Professor David McCarthy, from Monash University said passive sampling presents a cheap, safe and easy alternative to traditional wastewater sampling.

“The process of sewerage monitoring is really difficult, especially in countries like Australia where very few people are infected with COVID-19,”

Prof McCarthy said.

“This means we’re trying to find maybe one or two infected stool samples in a pool of tens of thousands of healthy samples.

“This is why efficient and portable methods are needed. The portability and size of the ‘torpedo’ means we can be more targeted in testing wastewater and narrow down the areas where people are likely to be shedding the virus, such as a suburb or aged care facility.

To put this in perspective, people infected with COVID-19 generally shed or excrete the SARS-CoV-2 virus through faeces, via coughing or sneezing.

There is evidence that this shedding/excretion begins early in the infection stage, sometimes even before an individual experiences any flu-like symptoms.

“This discovery is exciting and ground-breaking as it can fundamentally change the way we detect critical virus spread in our community, and can help with targeted health care actions.

“Plus, we can also offer these solutions to communities globally that are in desperate need of cheap and easy to use methods to help curb the spread of this virus,” Prof McCarthy said.

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