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It may be possible to track spread of COVID-19 by analyzing sewer water

There are various ways scientists and researchers are trying to track the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, but an approach pioneered by researchers in Australia adds one more to the mix: By tracking sewage.

The concept has been demonstrated by scientists at the University of Queensland and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). They gathered sewage samples from two different treatment plants and then analyzed their chemical makeup. The researchers discovered RNA fragments of SARS-CoV2 in the wastewater. This is the virus that leads to COVID-19.

The researchers note that this isn’t an alternative to mass testing, but it could be useful in combination with other approaches. It also has some specific advantages for analyzing the prevalence of COVID-19 on a population level, such as reflecting COVID-19 in asymptomatic individuals, meaning those who don’t show any coronavirus symptoms but could still infect others. After all, as the famous kids’ book says: Everyone poops.

“Access to this type of data could underpin an Australia-wide surveillance program to identify areas where there is evidence of COVID-19 outbreaks, without requiring testing of all individuals,” Dr. Paul Bertsch, science director at CSIRO, told Digital Trends. “These data will be particularly useful for catchments with vulnerable populations where testing using other methods may not be feasible.”

While this is promising research, there’s still more to do — such as figuring out how to quickly analyze wastewater to detect the presence of COVID-19. This could potentially be achieved using low-cost sensors at treatment plants. In the future, it’s the kind of thing that smart toilets could be kitted out to assist with in the event of (however much we don’t like to think of the prospect) a future pandemic or superbug.

“[This approach] could leverage the established national network of wastewater treatment plants and local councils, which is already used as part of a national wastewater drug monitoring program,” Bertsch explained. “Such a national surveillance program will likely have significant benefits in tracking infection prevalence during the recovery phase. It can be scaled up to a program of systematic sampling and analysis of wastewater using a standardized, coordinated approach, which could deliver timely wastewater surveillance data to inform decisions, responses, and public communications related to COVID-19.”

The next step, he said, is to work with government authorities, wastewater utilities, universities, other research organizations, and commercial laboratories to build such capabilities on top of existing networks.

A paper describing the research was recently published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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