This International Day of Women and Girls in Science we celebrate the role of women and girls in science, not only as beneficiaries but also as agents of change. We acknowledge this important day by profiling women who have pursued careers in science, to inspire Victoria’s future female scientists.
We’re excited to introduce members of the award-winning team behind the Victorian wastewater surveillance program.
In early 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic began the Victorian Department of Health had to prioritise limited resources to support the Victorian government’s response.
In the spirit of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science theme “water unites us”, the Water Unit Manager Suzie Sarkis and Karen Rouse (CEO Water Research Australia) saw the potential to use wastewater surveillance drawing on prior applications in polio and initiated the Collaboration on Sewage Surveillance of SARSCoV2 (ColoSSoS) ensuring ongoing national and global knowledge exchange.
Two other women in STEM Rachael Poon (microbiologist) and Dr Monica Nolan (medical epidemiologist) joined the charge to lead the Victoria wastewater surveillance program and inform timely public health action as part of the COVID response.
The Victorian wastewater surveillance program for SARS-CoV-2 has been successful in bringing together experts from diverse disciplines to apply their skills together to solve complex problems.
Suzie said “this program has shown environmental, or population level data is complementary to individual clinical data and can inform timely actions; to me that reinforces the importance of challenging dominant paradigms and breaking down silos and STEM women leaders are making major contributions in this space.
This project has been an absolute privilege to be leading and has been the most collaborative, interdisciplinary and rewarding project throughout our collective careers.”
This interdisciplinary collaboration includes engineers, epidemiologists, laboratory scientists, hydraulic modelers, communication experts, operators, samplers, IT experts, data enthusiasts and public health responders as well as diverse institutions including Water Research Australia and ColoSSoS partners in academia, laboratories and water agencies; the work of many hands.
Victoria’s adaptive surveillance program is recognised as world leading by its global peers. The program was rapidly established with Victoria-led innovations in sampling and analytic methods. Since August 2020, purposive sampling has been conducted at diverse settings and generated relevant surveillance intelligence which have informed the local COVID response as well as those in other domestic and international settings.
Monica explained “It is common to bring people together of different disciplines in a multidisciplinary team; it is rare to have a team which works together to apply their skills and expertise together to solve complex problems. That is what we have accomplished together in wastewater surveillance in our broad and diverse collaboration. It has been both extraordinarily impactful and rewarding! “
The program exemplifies evidence-based innovation in a dynamic COVID-19 environment. The program is highly adaptive and repeatedly demonstrated value in providing early warning of undiagnosed cases in a local area (sewage catchment) and enabling individual and local public health actions to maintain low community transmission through November 2021.
More recently the program has continued to inform and enable localised responses in settings with vulnerable populations or where accelerated transmission may occur including aged care, social housing, schools, prisons and essential food supply chain industries.
Since December 2021 there has been widespread community transmission of COVID and emergence of new Variants of Concern such as the highly transmissible Omicron Variant. In this context, the wastewater surveillance program has pivoted to provide quantitative trend information and describe which Variants are present and emerging. Wastewater data provides an unbiased source of truth which is important as a lower proportion of infected persons are diagnosed so case estimates have become less reliable.
Rachael expressed “As a water sector professional, I am excited to see the rapid and ongoing innovations in sampling which have so much potential to be applied beyond COVID and beyond wastewater; we are only limited by our imagination and audacity. “
Wastewater based information is not subject to any of the testing uptake or logistics or policy bias which affects daily case numbers. Wastewater based intelligence continues to be used to inform the response and provides timely information on local community transmission dynamics.
While we can continue to flush out the innovations and applications for wastewater surveillance, a standout for the program is the collaboration with Monash University. Available sampling methods did not provide the flexibility to sample over varying periods in a variety of settings which limited the surveillance applications. Monash University responded to this challenge and successfully led the development, piloting and widespread implementation of inexpensive and innovative passive samplers. This Victorian lead innovation has been a global game-changer in wastewater surveillance. Access is promoted with open source and these are now widely used internationally in developing and developed countries to support wastewater surveillance. The team continues to collaborate on further innovations which have relevance for COVID, other infectious diseases as well as translation and use for other environmental sampling applications such as climate change, antimicrobial resistance and beyond.
The Victorian wastewater surveillance program is a truly interdisciplinary collaboration bringing together experts from a range of backgrounds applying their skills to solve complex problems together.
Since the wastewater surveillance program started in August 2020 how many wastewater samples have been analysed for SARS-CoV-2?
A) < 10000
B) < 15000
C) < 20000
D) < 25000
E) < 30000
Refer to the website and describe what wastewater results show in the area you live or where your school is. What were the results in the last few days and weeks? What was the most recent result? What does that tell you about COVID in your area? Does it suggest that community transmission is increasing, decreasing or is stable?
You can discover more stories of how women have pursued careers in science and passion to make a real difference. These stories were selected for the positive impacts made to improve water in Victoria and beyond, and thus to our environment and the health and wellbeing of the Victorian community.