COVID-19: Finding clues to containment in wastewater

Australia, the Netherlands and Massachusetts have found traces of the virus in wastewater so far

By Rajeshwari Sinha
Published: Friday 17 April 2020

As the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic continues to run riot, the global scientific community is scrambling to find ways to curtail the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread. Several researchers across countries have detected presence of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater and are tracking it as a means to develop an early-warning system. 

Researchers from the University of Queensland (UQ) and Australia's national science agency Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) examined samples from two wastewater treatment plants in southeast Queensland and found ribonucleic acid (RNA) fragments of the virus in them. The findings were published on April 16 on CSIRO’s website.

People infected with the virus could have shed it through faeces and the same was traced in sewage water, according to the study. 

Australia, however, is not the first country to report such findings.

Netherlands has already reported cases for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in sewage and wastewater. A research group from the KWR Water Research Institute in Netherlands assessed sewage sample of seven cities and airport.

These samples were collected from eight wastewater treatment plants. Real-time polymerase chain reaction was used to detect three fragments of the nucleocapsid protein gene (N1, N2, N3) and one fragment of the envelope protein gene (E) of the virus.

These genes are responsible for the expression of specific proteins on the virus. The findings showed that SARS-CoV-2 was not detected in samples collected three weeks before the first case was reported on February 27, 2020.

The N1 fragment was detected in sewage water in five sites, only one week after the first case was reported. The N2 fragment was detected in sewage of six sites in the next 10 days, while N3 and E fragments were detected at five and four sites respectively.

The preprint of this study was published in medRxiv in March 2020.

The National Institute for Public Health and Environment (RIVM) in Netherlands reported the presence of the novel coronavirus in wastewater add date.

Quantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction analysis of human wastewater samples from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol showed the presence of virus RNA in samples collected four days after the first cases of COVID-19 were reported.

It is said that the virus can be excreted by symptomatic, asymptomatic and presymptomatic individuals. Human wastewater sampled in Tilburg, Netherlands, near the first Dutch cases also tested positive for viral RNA within one week of the disease onset.

While data pertaining to these studies has not been published so far, a correspondence based on these findings was published by The Lancet Gastroenterology and Hepatology on April 1. 

Another multi-institutional study showed that wastewater collected at a major urban treatment facility in Massachusetts had high titers of SARS-CoV-2 between March 18 and 25.

These studies indicated that monitoring SARS-CoV-2 in the sewage or wastewater samples can be an effective approach to understanding the spread of the virus.

It serves as an early warning tool in unaffected areas. The approach has been previously used to detect presence of other bacteria and virus in wastewater.

Determinants of antimicrobial resistance such as resistant bacteria, genes or antibiotic residues have been detected in sewage or wastewater samples. Surveillance of poliovirus in sewage samples has also helped monitor its circulation and containment.

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