Sewer systems are a window into the coronavirus pandemic

Apr 21, 2020

With limitations on COVID-19 testing making it hard to know how many people actually have the disease, some public health experts are turning to the sewer systems for a clearer snapshot.

“Sewage is a source of information on human health, and can really be transformed into a public health observatory,” says Newsha Ghaeli, president and co-founder of Biobot, a startup that analyzes wastewater.

Wastewater-based disease monitoring is a relatively new strategy, but it’s already been able to predict potential outbreaks of illnesses before cases appear. In Israel, for example, officials found the poliovirus in the sewage system in 2013 and mounted a vaccination campaign in response. Research shows that the new coronavirus is found in feces, so it’s a good candidate for this approach.

In collaboration with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Biobot analyzed sewage samples taken in Massachusetts in the middle of March. Based on the amount of virus, it predicted that there were a few thousand people infected in the area. At the time, there were only just over 400 confirmed cases. Currently, there are almost 40,000.

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