Wastewater surveillance advocated for COVID tracking

More civic bodies keen to participate in the process as it is efficient and inexpensive, says Rakesh Mishra

Published - August 22, 2022 06:45 pm IST - Hyderabad

Rakesh Mishra

Rakesh Mishra | Photo Credit: The Hindu

More municipal corporations across the country are now willing to participate in the wastewater surveillance of identifying COVID prevalence in the population and variants in circulation as it has proven to be “efficient and inexpensive with the ability to predict the spike a week or 10 days in advance”, informed noted scientist and former director of CSIR-CCMB Rakesh Mishra.

The waste water surveillance is going at “good pace” in Bengaluru, thanks to cooperation of the local civic bodies and the project is to be soon taken up for other pathogens, including Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) and also in other cities in collaboration with Bengaluru based TIGS - Tata Institute for Genetics & Society, where he is the director.

Twin CSIR institutions — Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT) and Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology (CCMB) have been carrying out the wastewater surveillance programme to check for the prevalence of COVID cases in Hyderabad, from the early days of the pandemic, pointed out Dr. Mishra, in a recent exclusive interaction.

CCMB had pioneered the wastewater testing for the first time and the technology is now available freely and protocols for testing and synthesising samples standardised. “More training of personnel is required. It is a win-win situation as disease prevalence information is provided free to the municipal and health authorities to take up remedial measures ,” he said.

There is also very “active support” for the surveillance programme from philanthropic bodies like The Rockefeller Foundation, and several government agencies including ICMR and SERB-Department of Science & Technology (DST) giving funds to increase the waste water surveillance across the country. 

Genomic sequencing can also be done with the samples collected from the wastewater but such environmental surveillance is “more effective when the samples are permitted to be collected from the Sewerage Treatment Plants (STPs)“, explained Dr. Mishra. 

“Samples collected from open drainage water in other places are not as efficient as the water keeps changing with constant flows. We hope that the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) comes forward to allow sampling from the STPs as till now we have been doing surveillance using about 20 open drainage sources,” he said.  

Booster dose

With regard to the third booster dose of COVID vaccine, he was all for it. “We are in a good position COVID infection wise thanks to prior infections and vaccinations despite the Omicron variant spreading all over. Yet, I strongly recommend the booster dose to those eligible,” asserted Dr. Mishra. 

While Omicron variants like BA 4/5 are causing reinfections, the acquired hybrid immunity is “holding good even if “we do not yet know the long COVID effects on the body”, he explained. As of now, the noted scientist does not see any need for a Omicron specific vaccine or a second booster dose.

“We have understood the virus and the variants in circulation are not troublesome. We need to keep monitoring  through genome sequencing of those admitted into hospitals. In parallel, wastewater surveillance to estimate case load and checking for new variants are needed as we are inching towards endemic stage,” he said. At the same time, Dr. Mishra regretted that face mask discipline is being given a pass by the citizens and insists it should become a “habit” and part of the “social practice” especially in crowded areas.

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