South African research finds Omicron variant in wastewater

CAPE TOWN – Social Media has been abuzz with posts shared about the recently discovered Covid-19 variant, Omicron being detected in wastewater in the City of Cape Town and the Nelson Mandela Bay regions.

Professor Rabia Johnson, deputy director of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC)’s Biomedical Research & Innovation Platform, said that detecting the Omicron variant in Cape Town coincides with the increase in Covid-19 cases in the city.

“We found the Omicron variant in 92% of samples of wastewater collected from Cape Town treatment plants on 30 November”, Johnson said.

“What we are detecting in wastewater is the non-infectious and non-transmittable form of the virus. It’s only fragments of the virus that we are detecting”, she added.

However, many social media users have been mistaking this report, thinking that the virus has been detected in the water that they are consuming.

The wastewater that these viral fragments have been found in are human faeces and human waste.

“Individuals with Covid-19 are known to shed viral remains in their faeces. Though these fragments are not infectious, they can be detected in wastewater treatment plants and quantified to indicate likely Covid-19 cases. They can also be used to screen for variants using PCR methods and next-generation sequencing (NGS),” SAMRC’s Genomics Centre director Professor Craig Kinnear said.

Where does this wastewater go?

According to the City of Cape Town, the wastewater in the city is ultimately discharged into our rivers, vleis and the sea.

However, before it gets there, the City makes sure to clean the wastewater and make it safe to discharge into the environment. This is through various wastewater treatment processes.

Moreover, the City of Cape Town also recycles and reuses approximately 10% of all the water used in Cape Town for irrigation and industrial purposes. Wastewater is not directed to tap water for water consumption.

Therefore, Omicron viral fragments found in wastewater should not be a cause for panic, as the Omicron cases rise in the country.

In the last 24-hour cycle yesterday, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases recorded 13 992 new Covid-19 cases identified in South Africa, which brings the total number of laboratory-confirmed cases to 3 180 785. This increase represents a 31.0% positivity rate.

Furthermore, 11 Covid-19 related deaths have been reported, bringing total fatalities to 90 148 to date.

SAMRC has further urged everyone to get vaccinated and observe Covid-19 related safety protocols to help fight this pandemic.