Change the world


Although we think COVID-19 has gone, our wastewater tells a different story.
Nelson Mandela University postdoctoral student Kaitlin Sprong and Masters student Sinazo Zingani have been testing the water running down our drains and out through the sewers.
Given the present water shortages across the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, it is important not only to check the quality of fresh water but also that of effluent to provide an “early warning” system about the exposure to pathogens (disease causing microorganisms like SARS-CoV-2).
Nelson Mandela University is a partner in the South African Medical Research Council’s SARS-CoV-2 wastewater research and surveillance programme, which monitors five provinces. Results are uploaded weekly on a dashboard and freely accessible to the public (
Through this, Sprong has been working closely with the municipality on nine wastewater treatment plants around the metro. Zingani is focussed on wastewater from student residences on the University’s Summerstrand campuses.
Their surveillance looks at the non-infectious SARS-CoV-2 RNA, the fragments of the virus that causes COVID-19, which can be shed in faeces of individuals who may or may not show symptoms.
Both Sprong and Zingani have reported that, although levels are lower than at their peak in 2020 and 2021, the virus is still very much with us.
“Wastewater based epidemiology is a useful tool to track different viruses,” said Sprong.
“The important takeaway, especially now when clinical cases are so low, is that it's easier to track the epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 in the wastewater rather than relying on people who aren't being tested, or are asymptomatic and are not reporting that they have COVID-19. 
“At the moment, our projects are mainly focused on SARS-CoV-2 as this was initiated last year when COVID-19 was very prevalent but there are definitely other disease-causing organisms that we can test in wastewater.”
Sprong and Zingani are part of a team supervised by project leader Dr Sharlene Govender, a senior lecturer in Microbiology and HPCSA registered Medical Biological Scientist at the University. 
They have been finding high levels of viral RNA in the water just before, and during the peak of, a wave of SARS-CoV-2, as well as when more students are on campus.
This information is useful to flag a possible increase in COVID-19 transmission. 
“We could track the different waves of COVID-19, testing the wastewater samples to assess levels of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” said Govender. This was then linked to different student residences, some of which were placed in quarantine in 2021 when numbers of cases spiked.
And, although the immediate threat of COVID-19 has lessened, the project – supported by the SAMRC Self-Initiated Research grant and the Nelson Mandela University Engagement Advancement Fund  – will continue into 2023.
“This is a great initiative to chart trends,” said Zingani. “Other bacteria and viruses should definitely be explored using wastewater to bring awareness to the public, because we can give them a snapshot of what's happening within the environment.”
Govender said the project aligned with the university’s support of the UN sustainable development goals.
“Water and sanitation are core elements of the sustainable development goals,” said Govender. Wastewater surveillance ties in with two SDGs, namely “Good Health and Well-Being” and “Sustainable Cities and Communities”.
The Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology testing team reports results on the SARS-CoV-2 levels to the University’s Safety, Health and Environment department and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor.
The project contributes to scholarship of engagement and research capacity building at Nelson Mandela University by addressing and responding to the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Postgraduate students Kaitlin Sprong, left, and Sinazo Zingani at work in the Microbiology laboratory at Nelson Mandela University

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057