Researchers Test Wastewater to Track Spread of Coronavirus

UC Staff Report

HOUSTON (UC) — It’s been widely recognized that the number of Covid-19 cases has been underreported due to limited testing and the absence of symptoms for many who contract the virus. Now researchers are turning to wastewater testing as a means of tracking its spread.

In a paper published Tuesday on the preprint server medRxiv, researchers concluded that wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) is a feasible approach to measure the coronavirus in wastewater and to determine how prevalent Covid-19 is in cities around the world.

The paper, authored by researchers from biotech startup Biobot Analytic and six institutions in the United States and Singapore, described wastewater testing conducted at a major urban treatment facility in Massachusetts.  That testing indicated a concentration of SARS coronavirus in the population significantly higher than expected based on the number of clinically confirmed cases in the area as of March 25.

"These data demonstrate the feasibility of measuring SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater," wrote the researchers, whose investigation indicated at least 2,300 people infected with Covid-19 in the area where only 446 cases had been officially reported at the time of their analysis. 

Improved understanding of the presence and prevalence of coronavirus at a population level can help government and hospital officials implement appropriate policies to mitigate the exponential spread of COVID-19, and diminish the future strain on healthcare facilities, according to researchers.

"Despite pandemic spread of SARS-CoV-2 worldwide, broad access to testing in the United States has thus far been severely limited. While it is impractical to test every US resident for SARS-CoV-2, the virus has been found in the stool of confirmed COVID-19 patients, making it a promising candidate for wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE)," they wrote.

"The implications of this research are that WBE can be leveraged to detect population level prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 in cities across the world," the researchers concluded.

Sewage samples from the wastewater treatment facility were transported to a laboratory where researchers conducted viral inactivation and enrichment, nucleic acid extraction, and other testing procedures, comparing results with biobanked wastewater samples from the same treatment facility taken before the first U.S. case was documented.

"These results suggest a fairly simple viral enrichment protocol is sufficient to achieve viral identification," according to the paper. "The implications of this research are that WBE can be leveraged to detect population level prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 in cities across the world."

Their conclusions mirrored those of separate research conducted in The Netherlands and documented in another medRxiv preprint, whose authors wrote: "The detection of the virus in sewage, even when the COVID-19 incidence is low, indicates that sewage surveillance could be a sensitive tool to monitor the circulation of the virus in the population."

Authors of the Massachusetts research paper included researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard, Brigham and Women's Hospital, the State University of New York and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. 

The Netherlands research was led by Gertjan Medema, who was part of a World Health Organization team that responded to the 2002-2005 SARS outbreak.

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