Union commentary addresses the analysis of wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 to estimate community infection

The Union’s Centre for Operational Research has published a ‘Commentary’ in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene on testing wastewater to detect the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in communities.

SARS-CoV-2 can be found in the stools of about 60 percent of patients with COVID-19, and several research groups around the world have demonstrated that SARS-CoV-2 can be detected and quantified in wastewater - i.e. sewage that goes through the drainage system to a treatment facility. This allows the number of community infections to be estimated and it becomes possible to monitor whether the virus has returned to the community after elimination. This approach has the advantage of being able to quantify people who have not been tested.

The commentary reviews the work done in this area in the Netherlands, USA, Australia and France. It goes on to discuss the further work needed to i) improve the quantification of the virus, ii) find ways of better detecting the virus at low levels, iii) mitigate infection risks which might arise from working with wastewater and iv) ensure wastewater samples are representative of the community under surveillance.

As countries around the world undertake their perilous journeys of unlocking from tight government restrictions and engaging in the logistically difficult strategies of testing, tracing and isolating index patients and contacts, the testing of wastewater could indirectly complement these efforts and assist in strengthened virus surveillance in the community.

Prof Anthony Harries, The Union’s Senior Advisor for Research said: “The scale and rapid spread of COVID-19 is forcing medical scientists to think outside the box and the researchers engaged in wastewater testing of SARS-CoV-2 deserve funding and our full support.”

Free access to the article is available from The Union’s website via the Oxford Academic website.

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