The key to finding outbreaks of the COVID-19 may lie in detecting the Coronavirus in sewage. As the United States struggles to establish adequate testing programs in communities around the country, testing for the virus in sewage might present a collective early warning tool that could indicate an outbreak among specific communities. Based on methods being developed by numerous teams, one of which is at Northwestern University, the city of Chicago could devise manhole testing strategies that could help isolate communities with outbreaks.
“‘We know we can detect SARS-CoV-2 in what comes into a sewage treatment plant,’ said Khalid Alam, the CEO of the company doing the testing in Chicago. ‘If we could test on a far larger scale — in hundreds or thousands of manholes at a time — we could begin to understand from a public health and an epidemiology perspective where these problems are at a more granular level.'”
The technique for detecting public health threats like disease and drug use in sewage has been used for decades. Briefly, the process works by detecting an indicator of an organism like a virus. The team uses a library of known molecular signatures of the substances that specific organisms produce as defense mechanisms against toxic substances like metals or chemicals. So, by adding sewage to a container with a toxin, researchers can detect the presence of the virus in that sewage based on a specific reaction to the toxin.
“If we could test on a far larger scale — in hundreds or thousands of manholes at a time — we could begin to understand from a public health and an epidemiology perspective where these problems are at a more granular level.”Khalid Alam, CEO of Stemloop, Inc.
Given the strong likelihood of additional waves of the virus, early detection will be crucial, especially and until the country implements a strong testing program. Sewage testing will then become another powerful tool in a community’s arsenal to manage what will likely be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future.