As countries continue to look for ways to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus which has claimed over a million lives globally, a group of scientists have turned to the sewage system to flush out hidden cases and measure the prevalence of the virus within communities by examining sewage.
According to a report in CNN, the scientists are using wastewater testing which has detected traces of Covid-19 genetic material, also known as RNA, in fecal matter.
Speaking to the American television channel, New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer said this data will provide a picture of how many people have had the virus asymptomatically and are transmitting it to others.
Meyer also said that his country has tied up with Bigot, an MIT-based start-up, to test wastewater for the virus. He added that New Castle County has wrapped up its first week of testing and the results are likely to be out early this week.
“We’re confident as we do this weekly, now that we’re working with Biobot, that this can give a varying indication of the total number of cases in our county, which is somewhat useful,” Meyer told the news channel.
“We want to identify hotspots, run this at 10 treatment facilities across a county of 560,000 people, and find out with these hotspots where they are and where they’re not,” he added.
Slightly skeptical over the results, he said, “I think it’s fair there’s skepticism, to be honest. What (Biobot is) doing seems really smart. The science seems sound. There are uncertainties everywhere … I hope this works and we’ve got to be skeptical.”
According to a Bloomberg report, Dutch scientists had earlier traced the virus in wastewater before the cases were reported.
The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is often excreted in an infected person’s stool. Although it’s unlikely that sewage will become an important route of transmission, the pathogen’s increasing circulation in communities will increase the amount of it flowing into sewer systems, Gertjan Medema and colleagues at the KWR Water Research Institute in Nieuwegein had earlier said.
The scientists had detected genetic material from the coronavirus at a wastewater treatment plant in Amersfoort in Netherlands on March 5, before any cases were registered in the city.
Netherlands had confirmed its first Covid-19 case on February 27 and later found health workers had fallen ill with the infection in a southern part of the country days later — a sign that it was spreading in the community.
“It is important to collect information about the occurrence and fate of this new virus in sewage to understand if there is no risk to sewage workers, but also to determine if sewage surveillance could be used to monitor the circulation of SARS-CoV-2 in our communities,” Medema, the institute’s principal microbiologist, and co-authors had said in a paper.