COVID-19: Novel coronavirus may be present in water cycle; poor, marginalised at risk

Virus may be present in the water cycle, says editorial in scientific journal 

By Rashmi Verma
Published: Thursday 09 April 2020

The novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) may be present in the water cycle, with the poor and marginalised being more prone to health risks, leaving rural and impoverished communities vulnerable, said an editorial published on April 2, 2020 in journal Environmental Science: Water Research and Technology.

More testing facilities were needed to determine the efficacy of water and the wastewater treatment system in killing the virus, according to the Haizhou Liu from University of California, in the US and Vincenzo Naddeo from University of Salerno in Italy, the authors.

The editorial cited an example of the spread of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) disease through aerosolisation — a process that converts a particular substance into particles small enough to be carried in air.

The aerosolisation of water droplets that contained coronaviruses in a leaking pipe resulted in a cluster of cases spread in a community in Hong Kong in 2003, according to the authors.

Studies focusing on the SARS epidemic in 2003 found that coronaviruses could survive up to a certain extent in the absence of adequate disinfection and hence the chances of being spread increased.

No known cases of COVID-19, however, were caused by sewage leaks till date, though a possibility of infection in this way was likely, since the virus was closely related to the one that caused SARS, said the authors.

There was, thus, a need to test more and determine whether water and wastewater treatment methods were effective in killing the SARS-CoV-2 and coronaviruses in general.

This should be followed by research to determine the best ways to keep the SARS-CoV-2 out of the water cycle.

Earlier research found that the survival of coronaviruses in water depends on a number of factors:

  • Temperature (coronaviruses are very sensitive to temperature)
  • Light exposure (solar or UV inactivation)
  • Organic matter (viruses can adsorb onto particles of organic matter, affecting settling behaviour or light shielding)
  • Presence of antagonist microorganisms (increasing the extent of inactivation)

The scientific community also believed that coronaviruses exist in and could maintain their viability in sewage and hospital wastewater, originating from the faecal discharge of infected patients.

The SARS-CoV-2 could, thus, already be present in wastewater, although its concentration and viability were yet to be confirmed.

Most water treatment routines in developed countries are well-equipped and thought to kill or remove coronaviruses effectively in both drinking and wastewater.

These methods, however, were not studied for effectiveness on SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses, according to the authors.

Risk for the poor and marginalised living in rural and impoverished areas in developing countries was higher as they lacked basic infrastructure to remove common contaminants.

Such areas were, thus, more prone to experience more outbreaks in the future.

The governments of developed countries must support and finance water and sanitation systems in these areas to tackle these challenges, according to the authors.

There was a huge responsibility on water scientists and engineers to understand the nature and fate of coronaviruses, the authors said.

Research communities of chemists, environmental engineers, microbiologists and public health specialists should work together and create synergistic joint approaches to develop multi-disciplinary and practical solutions for safe drinking water, they said.

The governments of developed countries must support and finance water and sanitation systems in developing countries as well, in a responsible and ideal scenario, the authors added.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.