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PROF KUMARI SHARES GROUND-BREAKING RESEARCH ON COVID-19

PROF KUMARI SHARES GROUND-BREAKING RESEARCH ON COVID-19

The Durban University of Technology (DUT) held a Science Webinar tackling the issue of Coronavirus in Water and Wastewater – Facts or Fiction, last Thursday, 5 August 2021, on MS Teams. 

In attendance to the much-anticipated webinar were the esteemed academic DUT community as well as some external stakeholders to listen to the talk given by Professor Sheena Kumari, an NRF C-rated researcher and an Associate Professor at the Institute for Water and Wastewater Technology (IWWT) at DUT.

Her primary research focus area is water and wastewater treatment, which includes applying advanced molecular techniques to comprehend the ecophysiology and pathogenicity of wastewater microbes.

Welcoming the guests to the webinar was DUT’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Engagement (RIE), Professor Sibusiso Moyo. She indicated that the Science Webinar forms part of the fact that DUT also celebrated National Science Week (NSW) from 29 July to 3 August 2021 timeframe.

“NSW is an annual celebration of science, engineering and technology, which attracts a lot of learners and members of the public to workshops, science shows and lectures, which are held by universities, schools, science centres and public facilities countrywide led by the Department of Science and Technology and DUT’s Technology, Transfer and Innovation (TTI) unit,” she said.

Prof Moyo thanked Prof Kumari for agreeing to give the talk, saying that the institution thought it was vital to have engagement platforms such as these, where different stakeholders can discuss current socio-economic issues and research related to COVID-19 and its impact. The IWWT is at the cutting edge of knowledge production in this area with efforts to help with early detection. For instance, this work has impact on being able to determine infection rates  per area or geographic region based on the samples collected and can help our practitioners in developing appropriate interventions and strategies.

“For us as a university this kind of ground-breaking work that is currently happening at IWWT around water and wastewater and what they are doing regarding research on early detection on COVID-19; trying to predict what the statistics are and what can be done to help towards policies or interventions is relevant as part of the roles engaged Universities can play within their respective regions.

In a way it’s one of the ways we can also contribute to strengthening our health system, the city and the region,” she said.

Prof Kumari then shared her presentation as to how the research for COVID-19 began at IWWT which was during the first peak of infection around May 2020.

“Our initial focus was developing a Wastewater-Based Epidemiology (WBE) surveillance programme to monitor the COVID-19 infection pattern in the community. This approach was built on the knowledge that most infected persons shed viral particles/nucleic acid in their stool, which ultimately ends up in wastewater. Thus, routinely quantifying the viral particles from raw sewage would allow for monitoring the disease progression in a community within a given wastewater catchment area. Furthermore, WBE has shown the potential to serve as a complementary tool for current clinical surveillance systems and an early warning system for most disease outbreaks,” she said.

Prof Kumari further relayed that Wastewater-Based Epidemiology (WBE) has long been used to help inform broader infectious disease surveillance and mitigation efforts, such as the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Currently, WBE surveillance is being undertaken to generate a complementary information source to track COVID-19 infections globally.

“The primary objective of our research is to use WBE as a valuable tool for COVID-19 surveillance within the KZN community and develop it as an early warning system that our health authorities could use to take timeous measures to contain the spread of the disease,” she said.

Her presentation outlined the introduction and background information on coronavirus, its structure and life cycle, variants of concern, mode of transmission, source and fate of the coronavirus in water and wastewater, Wastewater Based Epidemiology (WBE) and a brief overview of the ongoing research at IWWT in relation to WBE.

She explained what coronaviruses are, which belong to a large family of viruses-generally causing mild to moderate upper-respiratory tract illnesses. She indicated that it is found mainly in animals – pigs, camels, bats and cats, sometimes it jumps to humans – called a spill over event.

“Four of the seven human coronaviruses cause only mild to moderate disease. Three can cause more serious, even fatal, disease-SARSCoV1, MERS-CoV and SARS Cov2. The three serious versions of human coronavirus are the SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV) which emerged in November 2002-causing severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). It disappeared in 2004. This was followed by the MERS-CoV which emerged in 2012, a causative agent of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and continues to cause sporadic and localised outbreaks. SARS-CoV-2is the causative agent of the recent global pandemic, emerged from China in December 2019,” she said.

She then relayed more on the structural differences between a virus and bacteria, explaining the model of the coronavirus viroid structure and life cycle of a coronavirus inside the host cell.

Prof Kumari conveyed more on the different variants which are the B.1.1.7 (Alpha which was initially detected in the United Kingdom).

She spoke on the B.1.351 (Beta) variant which was originally detected in South Africa in December 2020, and the P.1 (Gamma), initially identified in travellers from Brazil and the B.1.617.2 (Delta) which was firstly identified in India in December 2020.

She looked at the mode of transmission such as respiratory droplets and aerosols, surfaces and faecal oral transmission. In terms of faecal-oral transmission, she indicated that the presence of virus in faeces has been reported in various studies. She said that coronaviruses in urine has also been reported.

“So far the studies showed no conclusive evidence for infective viral particles in the faeces, suggesting that faecal–oral transmission is not a primary route. However, larger-scale efforts are needed, especially with the emergence of new viral variants,” she said.

Prof Kumari explained on the sources of coronavirus in the water environment.

“Wastewater contamination could result from faeces, urine, handwashing, sputum and vomit. Surface water contamination could be from untreated wastewater/sewage, directly from faeces (open defecation): in areas lacking sanitation coverage; and direct contact with infected individuals.

She explained on the survival process of the coronavirus in the water and wastewater environments, saying that in viral structure, it has shorter survival periods compared to non-enveloped viruses and that the single stranded RNA is extremely fragile and may be degraded rapidly by RNases abundant in nature.

Prof Kumar said that in terms of the coronavirus survival in wastewater, the characteristics are the presence of chemicals with antiviral activity, proteolytic enzymes produced by bacteria, protozoan and metazoan predation and the temperature and pH of water. She then explained the fate of coronavirus in water and wastewater processes and relayed more on what more information can the wastewater data provide in relation to SARS CoV2. She also delved into the Wastewater Based Epidemiology, WBE testing sites globally.

She then spoke on WBE in South Africa: South African Collaboration on COVID-19 Environmental Surveillance System (SACCESS) network, as well as on the WBE in KwaZulu-Natal which is coordinated by the Institute for Water and Wastewater Technology (IWWT) in Durban and Pietermaritzburg since July 2020.

Prof Kumari also explained the methodology and what the wastewater processing entails. She indicated some key findings saying that a Metro such as the eThekwini municipality is a good reflection of the viral trends in the province.

“Viral loads in wastewater are dynamic and respond to changes in lockdown levels. WBE findings suggests that there may be more infected individuals than what is clinically reported (Jan/Feb vs June 2021), also WBE data shows a steady increase in copy numbers (30 March) prior to increase in clinical cases (20 April), demonstrating that WBE can be used as an early warning tool for monitoring spike in infections in the community,” she said.

However, Prof Kumari stressed that there are challenges in achieving the desired outcomes.

Prof Kumari further added that there is a decrease in the number of tests being carried out as the focus is now placed on vaccination and only symptomatic individuals are referred for clinical testing.

In relation to technical variability, she said that there is variability in sewer systems across communities, dilution due to rainfall events and there is viral inhibition caused by industrial discharge.

She stressed that there is ongoing and future research at IWWT.

 Prof Kumari relayed further on research publications published by IWWT such as on SARS-CoV-2 and their recent publications on COVID-19. In summary she said that the common contact surfaces in shared toiled facilities such as cistern handle, toilet seats, floor surfaces in front of the toilet, internal pull latches of cubicle doors and taps in hand-wash basins) were tested for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA.

“Up to 69% of these surfaces were contaminated. Toilet seats were the most contaminated- shedding of virus in faeces and urine. The probability of infection was also the highest when using a contaminated toilet seat and also reduced viral loads were observed after cleaning of the contact surfaces,” she said.

The ground-breaking research webinar was followed by a robust question and answers session, and vote of thanks.

Biography

Prof Kumari is also a professional member of the South African Council of Natural Scientific Professions (SACNASP), Academic Member of International Water Association (IWA) and Water Institute of Southern Africa (WISA). She is actively involved in student capacity development and she also serves as a panel member for NRF, steering group member for WRC, external examiner for various Universities and reviewer for multiple funding agencies and ISI journals. She is also successful in acquiring research funds and she is also a recipient of several awards, including the DST South African Woman in Science Award (SAWiSA 2019, 1st Runner up) and the Faculty of Applied Science research excellence and DUT recognition award in 2020.

Pictured: Professor Sheena Kumari

Waheeda Peters

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