The ultimate goal is for almost all wastewater plants to install these coronavirus early warning systems to track the spread of Covid-19.
“It would be the first line of testing,” said microbiologist Hauke Harms, one of the study leaders. “It would start with our measurement and then I would know where to go to find the reasons. Normally it is a hospital, or I don’t know, a factory where you have an outbreak. And then you would have to test the people.”
The concept seems simple enough: the wastewater contains remnants of the virus from human feces. If those concentrations suddenly increase, sewer plants will detect it and alert authorities to take action and begin testing specific to the area in question.
Sewer plants in the Leipzig city area in eastern Germany, which can serve populations of between 100.00 and 600,000 people, are among those participating in the study.
“If it were possible to get an idea of the concentration of coronaviruses in wastewater, we can calculate the number of people infected in Leipzig and this would be very interesting in coronavirus strategies,” said Dr. Ulrich Meyer, technical director. of the Leipzig waterworks.
But in reality, it is not so simple. At Leipzig’s main wastewater plant, samples are drawn every two minutes as the wastewater flows 24 hours a day.
Helmholtz scientists acknowledge that finding a small amount of the virus’ genetic material (or RNA) in a giant river of waste is a monumental task.
“We have a large volume of wastewater and it is challenging to find traces of the virus in the wastewater,” said Rene Kallies, a virologist working on the project. “So we have liters and we have to reduce it to microliters to get enough for the extraction of RNA and that is the challenge.”
However, scientists say they could detect a Covid crawl increase in one day and pass that information on to local authorities.
Another challenge, scientists say, is the current low number of new infections in Germany, which makes finding the virus even more difficult and means that a single infected person could bias test results.
“You may have heard of these super spreaders and there are also super excretors, for example. People who excrete much more viruses than others and of course this gives you the wrong idea about the number of people infected,” said Harms. .
Germany has been presented as an example of a country that has successfully avoided the worst ravages of the virus. As of Friday, it had reported more than 182,000 Covid-19 cases with around 8,400 deaths, significantly fewer than other European countries.
Tracking the virus in droppings is not new, and German researchers aren’t the only ones working to try to use the wastewater as an alarm system. In February, scientists at the Netherlands Water Research Institute KWR found the virus in six of the country’s wastewater plants, including one that serves Schipol’s main international airport. KWR said it has developed a method to monitor the presence of the virus in wastewater, and that testing wastewater has clear benefits.
“While individual testing requires individual testing, wastewater testing can give an early indication of contamination within an entire population,” KWR said on its website.
German researchers believe that analyzing wastewater will be a factor in a network of measures to detect outbreaks.
But they acknowledge that there are still problems to solve, although they say they are confident that the system will be in place and working in the second half of 2020, in time to help contain a possible second wave of the coronavirus.
“I think we can offer something before the next wave,” said Harms, referring to a functioning detection system that can be used by states and sewer systems. “So if the next wave comes in the fall or early winter, then we should have something.”