The new method is able to identify coronavirus in wastewater samples and monitor whether infection rates are increasing or decreasing.
Wastewater is a ‘robust source’ of COVID-19[feminine[feminine, according to the researchers, because infected people excrete the virus in their stool, which means that large amounts of virus particles are flushed down the toilet.
“This work confirms that trends in SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations in wastewater are accompanied by trends in new COVID-19 infections in the community,” said Professor Alexandria Boehm, University of Stanford.
“Wastewater data complements clinical test data and may provide additional information on COVID-19 infections in communities,” added the professor, co-lead research author.
The breakthrough comes as the United States faces record levels of daily transmissions, posing a major challenge to public health authorities trying to manage the virus.
Tracking the virus is problematic because many people with mild or asymptomatic cases go undetected – and those who get tested can spread the virus before they receive their results.
“Faster identification of peak cases could allow local authorities to act faster before the disease reaches a critical tipping point where transmission becomes difficult to contain and hospitalizations overwhelm the local health system,” said Stanford said.
To advance the science of wastewater monitoring for COVID-19, researchers focused on detecting the virus in deposited sediment rather than in the influent liquid.
They found that they were able to find higher concentrations of virus in solid samples than in liquid samples, giving a better indication of infection rates in the population.
The research has the potential to be used in areas that lack the resources for individual clinical trials, as well as being used by school districts to see if the circulation of the virus decreases.
A new pilot project is launched this month to sample up to eight wastewater treatment plants in California daily, with a 24-hour deadline for results.
It follows the publication of a British Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) article on the use of wastewater-based epidemiology in the UK.
The document reports that the detection of coronavirus RNA in wastewater “has quickly become an important tool in dealing with the ongoing pandemic” and is being used across the country.
The SAGE document revealed how sewage testing revealed an isolated outbreak of COVID-19 from a ship docked at the Devonport shipyard in Plymouth that had not been included in the reported test and trace numbers.
Likewise, at Orkney’s wastewater treatment plants – which serve a population of around 7,750 people – the virus has been detected in wastewater despite fewer than 10 positive cases recorded in test numbers – allowing Public Health Scotland to be notified.
The researchers say they are working with local health actors and universities in Exeter to see if wastewater monitoring can be used to monitor outbreaks in areas where there is a high proportion of asymptomatic individuals, such as the universities.
Last Thursday, the United States reported over 3,100 coronavirus-related deaths in a single day – a record for the country – which means more people have died with COVID-19 in a single day than in the terrorist attacks of September 11.
President-elect Joe Biden said on Saturday he would not force Americans to get vaccinated – but warned the country in the face a “dark future” unless swift action is taken to agree on a coronavirus aid bill.
His comments come as the country is embroiled in a nationwide outbreak of cases hampering its economic recovery.
Mr Biden also expressed concern that so far he had seen “no detailed plan” from the Trump administration on how to distribute an approved vaccine against the coronavirus.