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Malaysia might have a new way to detect Covid-19, and it involves using… poop

When we talk about ways to detect Covid-19, several images may pop up in your minds like this…

Nasal swab. Img from FMT

…or this…

Oral swab. GIF from Medium

However, not every Malaysians will be tested for Covid-19 la. In fact, the Health Director-General, Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah mentioned that the ministry is only using a targeted approach when it comes to mass testing, which is based on location and high-risk groups.

This means you’d only be tested if you either…

  • Show symptoms like cough or flu,
  • Have direct contact with infected patients or
  • Live in an area with high reported cases of Covid-19.

We’ve written about this and you can read more here.

But what if you don’t show symptoms (asymptomatic) at all? This is possible considering how, according to Dr Noor Hisham, 80-88% of Covid-19 patients in Malaysia don’t even show symptoms at all.

“But now the question is, they have no close contact, and they have no symptoms. What about asymptomatic people in the community? The answer is, we don’t know, unless we do a study to screen one community for example.” – Dr Noor Hisham to Malay Mail.

And Malaysian researchers have recently looked at one possible way to detect Covid-19 in a community by taking samples from your… POOPOO.

This is probably the most safest (and cutest) way to depict it so…

Before you panic, allow us to clarify that doctors and scientists WON’T be knocking on your (toilet) door and forcing you pangsai because these samples are taken from the sewerage system.

But wait. Why poop tho? Well, that’s because…

 

Besides the respiratory system, the virus can also be detected in your poop!

As it turns out, your crap is more useful than you think it is. Besides holding the information on your digestive system, it can now tell you if you have Covid-19. A study by Chinese researchers stated that the Covid-19 or scientifically known as the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus RNA (basically the nucleic acid of the virus) can be found in the feces of patients who are tested positive for Covid-19.

But, no. That doesn’t mean drinking warm water can kill the virus in your body. Img from The Star

So having heard that, a group of researchers in the Netherlands decided to find out if they can detect the virus in sewerage systems. And, true enough, they managed to detect the presence of the virus in a wastewater treatment plant in Amersfoort, a city located in the Southeast of Amsterdam, even before any cases have been reported in the city.

One of the researchers, Gertjan Medema of KWR Water Research Institute in Nieuwegein, said that the information collected on the presence of the virus is important to determine if sewage surveillance can be used to monitor the circulation of the Covid-19 virus in communities.

“That could complement current clinical surveillance, which is limited to the Covid-19 patients with the most severe symptoms.” Gertjan as quoted by Bloomberg.

You can watch the video on how the Dutch researchers made this discovery here:

Virologist associate and academician at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Prof Dr Nazlina Ibrahim agreed to this adding that it can help the Health Ministry identify infected locations. Well, this is because one of the important information that the stool would provide researchers is the evidence-based image of the actual viral load in the community.

And when this happens, the Health Ministry would be able to conduct health screenings on the residents of the infected location although the residents may not show any symptoms of Covid-19.

“Sewage samples from the sewerage system in potential high-risk areas can be taken to monitor the presence of Covid-19 virus. The findings will help the Ministry of Health to identify infected locations and carry out health screenings for the residents there.” – Dr Nazlina as quoted by Malaysiakini.

Another information it gives is the rough estimation of the number of people who might be infected by the disease. A study conducted in Paris showed that the higher concentrations of virus in the wastewater corresponds to higher numbers of infected people who contribute to the sewer system. 

Tourists at the Eiffel Tower, Paris in early March 2020. Img from Straits Times

And ever since the Dutch researchers’ discovery, other researchers from around the world have begun conducting studies on wastewater surveillance in their respective countries. Some countries that have been conducting this kinda study include Paris, the US, Sweden and Australia

Back in our home country, the Minister of Environment and Water, Datuk Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man said that his ministry would be working together with several entities to conduct a comprehensive study on this.

“The ministry through the National Water Services Commission, National Hydraulic Research Institute of Malaysia and the Indah Water Konsortium Sdn Bhd will conduct a detailed study to find out if the genetic material of the Covid-19 virus can live and reproduce in the public sewerage system.” – Tuan Ibrahim to Malay Mail.

However, according to Universiti Putra Malaysia Faculty of Forestry and Environment senior lecturer Dr Mohd Yusoff Ishak, Malaysia may not be able to rely on the studies conducted by other countries and would need to conduct its own study. In fact…

 

Malaysians aren’t likely to be infected with Covid-19 thru poop because…

So it seems like Malaysians have one less shit thing to worry about because we might not be infected with Covid-19 through poop and that is thanks to Malaysia’s hot climate.

“Malaysia’s hot climate causes microorganisms to decompose faster.” – Dr Muhd Yusoff as quoted by Malaysiakini.

The virus waiting to be decomposed in colder climates. Img from Make a Meme

Some of you may already have heard of this but to those who don’t, there have been reports claiming that the virus might be killed off under warm weather. While researchers have yet to prove this, there’s been a research on other types of coronaviruses like SARS that suggests they can survive for more than 28 days at 4°C.

But even if the hot climate couldn’t kill the virus, the United States’ Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that there are no scientific evidence proving that the virus can be spread like Nutella thru these Nutella-like excretions anyways. And that’s because researchers found that the virus would degrade once it is out of our bodies.

This is despite another study that claim that the virus can stay for as long as 33 days in an infected person’s poop although they’re already tested negative for Covid-19. Waitamin, if that is so, does that mean those who work at wastewater treatment plants might be infected by Covid-19 as well???

The CDC actually clarified that wastewater treatment plants need not worry because most of these plants would normally kill off viruses anyways. In fact, Malaysian wastewater workers may not have to worry at all considering how our sewerage system is the most canggih in the region. So, it won’t be an agent for the transmission of Covid-19.

Indah Water’s sewerage plants and a worker. Img from The Malaysian Reserve

But if you’re working at UNTREATED wastewater plants, then the CDC recommends you to practice safety at work and wear your usual personal protective equipment (PPE). This is because researchers have yet to discover if workers exposed to untreated wastewater plants can be infected to the disease.

While this discovery may be helpful to the Health Ministry…

 

Malaysian researchers may be conducting studies on this but not now

Although there have been numerous studies conducted by researchers all over the world on this method, which is also used to detect other diseases such as polio virus in Sabah and illicit drugs, it is worth to note that these studies are only at the preliminary stage. This means that the method cannot be implemented just yet and more research on wastewater surveillance needs to be done.

“Before their findings can be applied, we need more researchers and laboratories to conduct similar studies.” – Dr Mohd Yusoff as quoted by Malaysiakini.

But he also added that the Ministry of Environment and Water’s study can be put on hold until the Covid-19 infections have subsided to not overwhelm the laboratories. But won’t the Health Ministry need extra assistance to detect asymptomatic cases tho?

Well, not really. The current targeted approach has been proven to be pretty effective as of now. Dr Noor Hisham admitted that the Health Ministry oftentimes receives questions about whether it should be screening everyone like how the Iceland govt did. If you’re curious to know how the Iceland govt screened everyone, here’s a video on how it’s done:

But in Malaysia, the Health Ministry would only conduct mass testing on people living in high-risk locations aka locations that are under the enhanced movement control order. Well, the Selangor govt has conducted mass testing in the state too but that’s a story for another day.

“This approach produces a high-impact and good outcome in a short period of time.” – Dr Noor Hisham to The Star.

While waiting for studies on sewer surveillance to be conducted by the Ministry of Environment and Water and our local researchers, the best thing we can do at the moment is (yes, we’ve repeated this waaaayyy too many times #ihatecilisos) to practice social distancing, stay at home and, most importantly, wash your hands regularly… especially after you pangsai. 😉

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