South African Medical Research Council President and CEO, Professor Glenda Gray, has expressed concern over the rising concentrations of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in certain wastewater treatment plants in South Africa, and what it may mean for the prevalence of COVID-19. This follows several months of relatively low concentrations as previously reported.

Over the past several weeks, there has been a degree of volatility in the concentrations of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater samples from Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay, with a distinct upsurge in the City of Cape Town, in particular last week. This was revealed by scientists from the SAMRC Wastewater Surveillance and Research Programme (WSARP), a multi-disciplinary scientific team that undertakes weekly wastewater sampling and analysis at approximately 80 urban and rural sites nationwide. Working together with university-based laboratory partners at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, University of Venda, Fort Hare University, Nelson Mandela University and the University of Zululand, the results are distributed to local municipalities and national stakeholders within 48 hours and uploaded on a dedicated WSARP dashboard where the public can view them.

Professor Angela Mathee, a member of the team said their analyses also point to a sharp rise in SARS-CoV-2 concentrations in wastewater samples collected from sentinel towns in the Western Cape’s Breede Valley area, as well as an increase in concentrations at the Cape Town International Airport. “The wastewater analyses are not indicating similar increases in SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations elsewhere in the country at this stage,” she said.

According to Professor Gray, although there is not enough evidence at this point to draw conclusions about a fifth COVID-19 wave, now is a very good time for everyone in our country to strengthen their COVID-19 transmission prevention practices, including getting vaccinated (and for those who are eligible, to take booster shots), wearing masks in closed spaces, ensuring that indoor spaces are well ventilated, practicing hand hygiene and using sanitiser.

“Our genomics and sequencing teams are currently undertaking the tests to determine whether or not we are dealing with a new variant, and we will release those results as soon as they are available,” she concluded.