Good afternoon. My name is Dr. Cameron Jones, and I'm an environmental microbiologist. And this week, we have a very interesting and important show. Obviously, for those who tune in every week, you know that we focus on various different aspects of public health and environmental health surveillance. And this week, we're going to be focusing on how you can go about testing your environment for the presence or absence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
And I've just checked on my phone, what the statistics are for Australia today. And the total number of cases is 37, with 30 new cases recorded here in Victoria. So this is very unfortunate news. Certainly, countries like Australia and New Zealand have been showing a very good response in terms of flattening the curve. And so today's show is really all about one aspect of this coronavirus pandemic. And that is, what is the level of the virus, the coronavirus out in public, especially on high hand-touch surfaces.
And so, the topic of today's presentation is on this issue of COVID-safe surface testing and environmental monitoring. And I want to talk about how a molecular approach called qPCR can help reassure your customers and clients of your business that you are making every effort to ensure their safety.
So, I want to talk about one of the important forecasts that have come out from the University of Melbourne. And they have this fantastic website, which is interactive, and this is the aisle down the bottom of this presentation. And you can see that using the statistics up until just a couple of days ago, and now this does not include the statistics for today or yesterday, you can see that the trend in terms of the confirmed number of active cases, in fact, is going up, and it is predicted to go up in an exponential manner.
And certainly, any of you who are tuning into local news here in Australia would be familiar with the fact that, certainly in Victoria, the premier has flagged fold the fact that there is going to be emergency and free testing in selected suburbs this weekend, in order to provide some collection of those individuals who live in these suburbs who may be unknowingly carriers of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But I just want to highlight the fact that the numbers are going up in Australia, and that will lead me into what we're going to be talking about today.
And again, as I mentioned at the outset of this live stream, for the last couple of months I've spent a considerable amount of time preparing some academic articles and putting them into the peer-reviewed literature, and getting feedback and modifying those publications until they were acceptable. They've now come out. And basically, I'm focusing on COVID-safe awareness, and in particular, the transmission on high-touch surfaces, something called fomite transfer. And this is what we're going to be focusing on today.
And I'm going to actually play you a video that my research assistant and I made in the last 48 hours, which shows you when we actually go into a shopping center here in Melbourne and swab some high touch surfaces, what our results actually show. And then I'll bring you back to my lab and show you on the PCR machine what the readouts were, and it's quite staggering. So stick around for that.
So the reason I've put up these publications is I'm going to be drawing in a sense from those because they provide a good review of the literature, what we know about coronavirus and its persistence on surfaces, and its ability to be picked up by our hands when we touch objects out in the environment, and how we can cross contaminate ourselves. And I've talked about how this occurs. It's touching our face, essentially, and it is the T-zone: our eyes and mucous membranes, our nose and their mouth. And so, that's what we're going to be focusing on. So these articles provide some background to the context of today's live stream.
Now, what are we talking about with coronavirus environmental testing? Well, this is a method of being proactive, and it's a proactive approach to reassure your customers or clients that your business, essentially is making every effort to ensure their safety as well. Using rapid COVID-19 testing kits allows you to test for the presence of the coronavirus inside buildings, in public areas, on infrastructure, and in a wide range of locations.
Not just healthcare settings, not just in hospitals, not just in aged care facilities, but in gymnasiums, in restaurants that want to open, in nightclubs that want to reopen, in a whole range of different diverse business types that in a sense need to validate that their cleaning practices have successfully disinfected all of the potential surfaces that members of the public and staff could come into contact with.
So what is this? qPCR testing, essentially, is swabbing these hard or semi-porous surfaces called high-touch surfaces. So they're things that we touch all around us, and could potentially transmit the virus onto other surfaces or onto other people. And what is the lab time? Well, the lab time is very fast. Using molecular techniques, it's less than one hour to get a pass or a fail result once the swabs taken back to our laboratory.
Now, with businesses across Australia in the process of reopening, essentially this provides a method to help these businesses validate that they do, in fact, are following the guidelines to provide and maintain what's called a COVID-safe workplace. And I would urge you to look up what the expectations are of a COVID-safe workplace in Australia, and how this type of swab testing can give an added layer of validity and a surety to your existing cleaning practices.
So essentially, it is aimed at reassuring your customers, staff, and clients that you have an effective coronavirus management program in place. And this cannot be understated. It's one thing to test people, but you need to test the environment in which those people carry out their day-to-day activities. And later on in this live stream, we're going to get into some of the key findings from a survey that I did on the Australian public.
But the other important thing I want to stress is that swab testing allows you to clear a building post-exposure. So many of you who are following the news would be familiar with the Cedar Meats cluster of coronavirus, as well as the cluster of cases surrounding the McDonald's a couple of weeks ago.
So in a sense, swab testing is very important to post-exposure clear these environments, and is completely more important and more valid than using surrogate indices, such as fluorescent brightness or ATP swabs, which really measure for different types of microbes. ATP swabbing measures the coronavirus, and specifically, the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. And that's what we need to make sure we're not being exposed to.
Furthermore, the point of coronavirus environmental testing is to monitor the efficacy or the validity of your cleaning, and to make sure that the disinfections or decontamination efforts are, in fact, cleaning adequately. And the last point I want to make is that swab testing allows you to perform bio-surveillance for risk.
And certainly, this is going to be increasingly important as we move back towards travel, as we move back towards many members of the population using public transport, and as we move back into normal day-to-day activities. As we resume our previous pre-COVID-19 lifestyle, it's important that businesses of all types are validating that they have, in fact, done everything they can to maintain and to promote safe practices and in a safe environment for people.
Now, I'm going to play you a video because this puts everything that I've just been saying in context, and you should be able to understand this quite easily then.
Divya and I are just here in this public car park of the Central Square Shopping Center. And what we're about to do is suit up into our PPE. And we're about to use qPCR swabbing to test some high-touch areas of this shopping center or the public areas, and we're going to see whether or not we can actually detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus on any of these surfaces.
So we have been driving around the car park for perhaps 15 minutes, and we found five locations that we think are suitable to test. So I guess to begin with, we're going to do the door handles of a fitness center. We're going to be doing the shopping trolley handles. We're going to be doing an ATM machine, the push buttons of the ATM machine. And what else is on that list?
Ah, yes, the public benches where people are waiting to be either picked up or collected or for public transport. And we are also then going to use one of the public restrooms which is open, and we're going to do some of the high-touch surfaces there. We'll see what we find out, then we'll go back to the lab and analyze it.
Yeah. All good.
We're going to do the benches.
Now, I'm going to go inside to swab public restrooms, and see what we determine in here.
So I think I'll do some high-touch areas.
We're not going to test out the ATM machine.
Now, if you leave everything with me, I think I could-
To the door?
What are you doing?
[inaudible 00:14:56]. Yes, of course. That's how they're going to get. That's how the whole country is going to get. In six months' time, the country is going to close down again.
Well, the way people are going about it, that's how we're going. They found more, and more, and more now. It's never going to end. Yep.
What's that for?
Testing for surfaces for the SARS-CoV-2 virus on surfaces like the ATM machine buttons.
Have you found any?
We can't tell yet. We're here doing a surveillance of it out in the environment.
People don't care. They're not taking notice of everything what happening around the world. It's true. I'll give it six months, and it'll close down again.
These are the samples that we collected today from the different sites at the public spots. And now we have finally prepared our PCR mixture, that we will run in the PCR now.
Now, you're probably wondering what our results showed. Well, we're here to tell you.
Now, here are the results for the Center Square shop yesterday. And you can see the various graphs and curves. And on the right-hand side, here are all the samples that we took. And you will see that even with five samples, the benches detected SARS-CoV-2. And here is the graph. And that means that out of the five samples, one of them had residue of SARS-CoV-2.
Now, that's 20% of the samples we collected yesterday returned residue of SARS-CoV-2. Now, I wonder what your public space, or workplace, or home environment is showing. Now, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is very serious. The numbers in Victoria are going up daily. I think that this short experiment that we did yesterday demonstrates that the prevalence of the RNA for the virus in the natural environment is very high. And our lab is certainly in a position to analyze your samples. So please reach out and make contact with us, and we'll be happy to help you out.
I think the importance of testing for SARS-CoV-2 in the environment is really to validate the cleaning protocols that you individually adapt to make a COVID-safe workplace. And that can't be underestimated. Testing is very important for people. But as we've shown with this short little experiment, it's very important to test the environment as well. That way, you can then focus cleaning effort on those areas in the event that they fail. Anyway, talk to you later. Bye for now.
Well, so that is really quite shocking, isn't it? We didn't think that the first time we went out into the field rather than just testing surfaces in the lab, that we would so easily be able to detect the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus out in the wild, in a shopping center in inner city, Melbourne. So imagine how many similar surfaces are invisibly contaminated right now, and the potential for those surfaces to be invisibly transmitting this virus throughout the community has to be unbelievably high.
And if we go into the peer-reviewed literature, we find that just under 17% of outdoor and building samples in other parts of the world have similarly been shown to be contaminated with the coronavirus. So the potential for community transmission from fomites has to be in a sense underappreciated throughout the world and globally. But, what are some of the benefits now of testing?
Well, the whole aim of this is to minimize risks from coronavirus transmission on these surfaces, and then prevent them being transmitted onto your body, and onto your face and high mucous membrane surfaces. Furthermore, by testing, you can monitor and adjust your cleaning protocols as required. And importantly, you can develop or improve on your existing policies and procedures, not just for cleaning, but for how you maintain a COVID-safe workplace.
And the role of environmental surveillance, it's not just restricted to the hospital environment anymore. As you can see from the shopping center experiment, shopping centers are hotspots of hidden virus that's been shed onto those surfaces, who knows from asymptomatic persons, or people who are unwell, or from super-spreaders. We really don't know. But the bottom line is, we do know that the replication competence of the virus is from hours to days. And depending on which publications you refer to, it's probably at least up to seven days. So the fact that we've measured it means there's good potential it's been shed within that timeframe and could go on to cause the COVID-19 illness in people.
And so testing for it allows you to demonstrate compliance with the Australian government's guidelines surrounding COVID-safe workplaces. As well, instead of reacting with fear, you can use swab testing to collect evidence-based data. And that is much better than, “I wonder whether it's contaminated,” or, “I hope it's not contaminated.”
Furthermore, by regularly testing high-touch areas, think of gymnasiums, or schools, or public transport, or childcare centers, you can demonstrate and produce a diary of cleaning validation, which demonstrates the steps you have taken to minimize disease transmission within your facility. Furthermore, by doing swab testing, you reduce the risk of litigation because you can demonstrate that your business has been proactive and not reactive.
I want review some of the key results from the publication that I cited earlier that I am the author of, and this is focusing on qPCR swab testing, and the main results from the survey of the Australian public that I did.
The first finding was that 55.4% of the respondents were definitely concerned about coming into contact with the coronavirus in their day-to-day activities. And the shopping center is a typical example of a place that all of us go from time to time. 50%, or half and half, thought that they would at some point be exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus simply by breathing. None of us can avoid that. 56% of, precisely 55.8% of the respondents, thought that it was likely that they would come into contact with the SARS-CoV-2 virus on surfaces that they touch in their day-to-day activities.
But 91% of respondents thought that surface testing validation using PCR swabs would increase consumer confidence about them entering, and using, and being in a COVID-safe workplace. 91%. That's a very high statistic. In fact, it reflects the fact that everyone is quite selfish about disease risk. No one wants to expose themselves to environments that are unsafe, and everyone can see the merit of businesses testing and proving that they are, in fact, clean.
The next key points I want to talk about, nearly 80% of respondents wanted the option to do testing in their home. But look at this. Over 90% of the respondents wanted the option of the workplace testing. That means that pretty much everyone, at least in Australia, wants businesses to test their workplaces. 79.3% of respondents thought that businesses should be able to document that they are COVID-safe and that their indoor surfaces are not SARS-CoV-2 contaminated.
And a bit over 80% of the respondents would definitely pay more to, for example, an Airbnb or a similar holiday rental, if they could demonstrate proof of safe cleaning procedures that had been validated as having made sure that the premises was not contaminated with the coronavirus. And isn't that important as we talk about travel bubbles potentially into state and potentially from Australia to New Zealand and onto other countries?
Let's look at some other key results. Not surprisingly, 14.6% of respondents would take legal action against a business, or against management, or against a company, if that business had not taken advantage of testing for SARS-CoV-2 residue and they subsequently became sick. Don't underestimate the nearly 15% who would go to a solicitor and take action. That is a huge amount of litigation looming.
43.6% of respondents who have to put their children into childcare or put their children back into school, kindergarten, would feel reassured if the service could provide documentary evidence that they had validated their cleaning against the actual coronavirus, not just, “We're following policies and procedures.”
And 47.3% of respondents even thought that their pet cat or dog could potentially transfer the virus onto household surfaces. We haven't heard a lot about this in the media in the last couple of weeks, but certainly earlier in March and April, there were reports of the SARS-CoV-2 virus being transmitted from humans to pets. And so, that's still a concern. It's still a potential surface, just like your keyboard, or your mobile phone, or that bench in that shopping center.
And in terms of the top 10 business types, ranked in order of priority, this is a bit of a no-brainer, but it is your gyms, your cafes and restaurants, your hotels, public transport, these are the top few business types that the public when they're asked about what they're worried about, this is the list. This is what people are most concerned about, and where this type of surface testing needs to occur so these businesses can promote themselves as being COVID-safe.
Moving on, allied health and beauty, age care, disability services, all those individuals who are taking advantage of hospital in the home, those potential sources could be hotspots of hidden infections. Childcare, of course the airline industry, and cruise, and travel industry, they're all potential locations and business types that could present as a risk to the public. And then we have the whole range and diversity of different shops and retail premises.
The whole point of doing swab testing for the coronavirus in the environment is to inspire confidence as the nation reopens. This can only be a good thing. We want to inspire confidence. We want to get on with our lives.
With the increasing number of cases being detected, certainly in Australia in the last several days, it is going to become important that businesses differentiate themselves and promote COVID-safe workplace activities. And I believe that testing in the environment is very important and should accompany testing of individuals as well. Once you are sick, you can take action. But what about before you're sick, to find these invisible hotspots or this fomite contamination in the environment.
So what are you going to do now? Well, I'd suggest you download and read some of the references that I've put at the bottom of this live stream, or in the YouTube and podcast version of this live stream these references are available. You can read about the other scientists and medical practitioners who have written about surface and fomite contamination and its risk factor for transmitting this throughout the community.
My laboratory, Biological Health Services can certainly assist you with testing in your facility, testing your workplace, and providing consultancy regarding COVID-safe workplace practices.
My name is Dr. Cameron Jones. It was a real high going to that shopping center and replicating some of the unfortunate statistics that are in the literature, and showing that they apply equally so to Australia, suburban shopping centers in Australia. In any case, I'm going to sign off now. I wish you well. Stay safe. And remember, wear masks, use hand sanitizer, wash your hands regularly, maintain vigilance. The pandemic is by no means over. Bye for now.
Where to obtain an onsite coronavirus surface swab test: www.biologicalhealthservices.com.au
JONES, C.L. (2020). COVID-Safe Awareness and Implications for Environmental Surface Testing in Australia. International Journal for Research in Applied Science and Engineering Technology (IJRASET), Volume 8, Issue V, Page No: 1234-1245, ISSN : 2321-9653, http://doi.org/10.22214/ijraset.2020.5196
JONES, C.L. (2020). Environmental Surface Contamination with SARS-CoV-2 - A Short Review. Journal of Human Virology & Retrovirology. 8(1): 15-19. https://medcraveonline.com/JHVRV/JHVRV-08-00215.pdf
Phillips B, Makin M, Felzmann U. Coronavirus 10-day forecast. Au.covid19forecast.science.unimelb.edu.au. http://au.covid19forecast.science.unimelb.edu.au/. Published 2020. Accessed June 27, 2020.