Rising concentrations of Covid-19 fragments found in Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay wastewater

SAMRC media statement: 

The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) has today confirmed rising concentrations of SARS-CoV-2 RNA fragments in wastewater in the cities of Tshwane (Gauteng) and Nelson Mandela Bay (Eastern Cape). This follows an earlier cautionary note from the SAMRC (issued on 19th November 2021) that their wastewater surveillance team observed increasing volatility during the previous fortnight, in the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 RNA fragments in wastewater samples.

In collaboration with laboratory partners, the SAMRC operates a Wastewater Research and Surveillance Programme through which more than 70 wastewater treatment plants across four provinces in the country, are monitored on a weekly basis for the concentration of non-infectious RNA fragments of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19. On Monday mornings, field staff collect samples from the wastewater treatment plants for delivery to partner analytical laboratories by midday, for extraction and analysis. By Wednesdays, after quality control checks, the findings are relayed to relevant municipal and other stakeholders.

Dr Rabia Johnson, Deputy Director of the SAMRC’s Biomedical Research & Innovation Platform (BRIP) and one of the scientists involved in the Programme, indicated that from the start to the end of November 2021, the picture had changed dramatically. “At the beginning of the month levels of SARS-CoV-2 RNA fragments in wastewater were mostly low or undetectable; now we’re measuring concentrations last seen during the 3rd COVID-19 wave,” said Dr Johnson.

CONCENTRATION OF NON-INFECTIOUS SARS-CoV-2 RNA FRAGMENTS IN WASTEWATER FROM SELECTED WASTEWATER TREATMENT PLANTS (copies/ml)
Nelson Mandela Bay,

Eastern Cape

2 Nov 2021 8 Nov 2021 15 Nov 2021 22 Nov 2021
Fishwater Flats 2861 6400 9567 11249
Kelvin Jones 362 282 423 20573
Tshwane, Gauteng
Refilwe 0 0 0 20 989
Temba 0 0 342 10596
Breede Valley, Western Cape
Rawsonville 3611 155 3554 5232
Cape Town, Western Cape
Cape Town International Airport (pumpstation) 0 0 0 2465

Also working on the Programme, Dr Renée Street who is the Deputy Director in the SAMRC Environment and Health Research Unit, described how the latest findings had been made possible through partnerships with the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences and Nelson Mandela universities. She pointed out that the rising SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations are now evident in the majority of wastewater treatment plants in Tshwane. In addition, there is increasing volatility in SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations at wastewater treatment plants where levels had previously been low. “Apart from the sharp increases in SARS-CoV-2 fragment concentrations being observed in community-based wastewater treatment plants, we are also picking up rising concentrations in wastewater samples collected from Cape Town International Airport,” she said.

According to Prof Glenda Gray, SAMRC President and CEO, the rapidly increasing concentrations of SARS-CoV-2 RNA fragments in wastewater are a major cause for concern, especially alongside reports of increases in COVID-19 cases and deaths in the past week. “Collectively, the evidence makes a compelling case for those who qualify for booster shots to get them urgently,” said Professor Gray. She added that while the country has seen encouraging vaccination coverage, with more than 24 million people having received at least one dose – and more than 15 million fully vaccinated, the severity of the next wave will likely depend on whether the country achieves its vaccination targets.

Prof Gray also urged healthcare workers who qualify for the booster shot to do so without delay by taking part in the Sisonke 2 Study – this she said, was necessary in order to protect themselves against COVID-19 infections and admissions during the fourth wave which is predicted to start in December.

On the new COVID-19 variant, B.1.1.529, that has been detected in South Africa recently, scientists from the SAMRC Wastewater Surveillance Programme said although not much is known about it at this stage, they will monitor it like they have done with the other variants such as Delta. “With new and probably more contagious COVID-19 variants emerging locally and elsewhere, there is an increased need to monitor them and their presence in our communities in order to provide an early warning system for public health authorities”.

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