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April 09, 2020

Sewage could be used to track the spread of the coronavirus to new communities

Lack of testing has made the pathogen difficult to locate people, so scientists are looking at wastewater to reveal clues

Health News Coronavirus
human waste coronavirus Donat Sorokin/SIPA USA

In the U.S., tracking the coronavirus has been complicated by the nationwide shortage of tests for people. If testing for the virus in wastewater is effective, officials could find where the pathogen is present without mass testing.

Scientists may be able to use sewage to track where coronavirus has spread by looking for the presence of the virus in human waste collected at water treatment facilities.

Dutch researchers published a study this week showing that they had found the genetic material of the coronavirus at a wastewater treatment plant in the Netherlands, Bloomberg reported. Scientists detected the virus in human waste collected from a city where no cases of COVID-19 had been reported. 

The study says that while it is unlikely for the virus to spread to people through the sewage, even the workers at the plant, detecting the coronavirus in wastewater could be a means of early detection to determine where it has spread.

Wastewater tracking has been used before as a "public health surveillance tool" to track illicit prescription drugs, like some opioids and other antibody resistant viruses, like polio.

For the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., tracking where it has spread to has been difficult due to the nationwide shortage of tests. If testing wastewater is effective, officials could find where the virus is present without mass testing. 

Wastewater tracking, by supplementing on-going testing or by itself, could also advise on social distancing measures and how health care workers should engage with the public in certain areas. This tracking would not show an exact number of positive coronavirus tests, but could detect spread based on where the infected water was found.

Scientists around the world are examining wastewater traveling to water treatment facilities for SARS-CoV-2 genetic material in the form of viral RNA. More than a dozen research groups are testing this method, which could be used as a "non-evasive, early warning tool," one scientist said. 

The method is especially good as an early predictor, as even low level of the coronavirus can be found in wastewater before people in a community begin to exhibit symptoms of COVID-19.


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