17 September 2021 16:00

Indian-origin scientist tests sewage in Australia to map the spread of COVID

Sudhi Payyappat leads a team of experts in examining sewage samples collected from wastewater treatment plants across New South Wales.

The results from his lab can save Australians from COVID.

Last year, Payyappat told the Guardian:

“If just one person has it, we’ll find out. Even in a large catchment of more than a million, we can know.”

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50-year-old Payyappat is a Kerala-born microbiologist who has now settled in Sydney.

He developed a methodology that has been adopted across Australia for its testing of waste-water to locate fragments of SARS-CoV-2.

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Payyappat told The Indian Express:

“If one person is shedding the virus in a catchment of a 20,000-30,000 population, we will be able to pick it (virus) up in the treatment plant. It has a huge economic potential as it is equivalent to monitoring that many people. It has helped in containing the spread of the infection.”

He has been working as a technical specialist with Sydney Water for the past 20 years.

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He adds:

“Once you get the virus, you may show symptoms only from 6 or 7 days onwards, or you may be an asymptomatic carrier. But you start shedding the virus within three days. That gives us plenty of time to arrest the spread of infection.”

Last year, after his return to Australia from India, Payyappat heard that a percentage of people infected with the virus shed it though their stools ending up in the sewage system:

“When I got the early successful detection, I passed on the information to other partners. They adopted my method which is being run across the country now.”

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He has collected hundred-odd samples to validate the theory and to prove the correlation.

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NSW Health uses the data to identify smaller catchments areas.

Payyappat further adds:

“Since we don’t have as many cases in Australia as other countries, one of the challenges was when the waste water comes to the treatment plant, there’s massive dilution happening. Obviously, the virus gets diluted that way so we needed to have a sensitive method that will pick up very low numbers.”

Payyapat’s success in Sydney has made the Australian government to expand it to other states.

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