Can Human Poop Help Track The Spread Of COVID-19?

Scientists around the world are peeping into poop and wastewater for the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) to track the spread of COVID-19 in urban localities.

Researchers from MIT’s wastewater analytics spinout Biobot, Harvard University, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston have launched a pro bono program to test community sewers. They’ll be looking for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in people’s poop.

It is believed that tracking wastewater for the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 can serve as an early warning system alerting the public health community to when and where infections are prevalent and if the virus is re-emerging in communities.

Professor Kevin Thomas, an environmental health scientist at Queensland University, has already run a pilot in south-east Queensland testing sewage, where he managed to detect traces of SARS-COV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — in excrement.

Because fragments of the virus are shed in faeces, scientists look for it in sewage.
Research published by the journal Nature Medicine recently found people shed or excrete COVID-19 viral material two to three days before they get symptoms.

The so-called SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is often excreted in an infected person’s stool. Although it’s unlikely that sewage will become an important route of transmission, the pathogen’s increasing circulation in communities will increase the amount of it flowing into sewer systems, Gertjan Medema and colleagues at the KWR Water Research Institute in Nieuwegein said recently.

The information means governments could potentially identify COVID-19 hotspots before the people infected have even realised they’re sick.

Professor Thomas said the test gave health authorities a clearer understanding of whether there had been community transmission in an area.

Among the several research groups, an international collaborative led by Swedish researchers including Indian scientist Manish Kumar of IIT-Gandhinagar says the ongoing pandemic offers an occasion to field-test the hypothesis that wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) can be used to observe and manage public health in almost real-time, at a global scale.

“We will have a standard protocol for collecting samples and doing the laboratory analysis. The main motive of our study is to understand the transmission mechanism of Covid-19 from an infected person to the sewage and from sewage to humans again,” Manish Kumar of the department of earth sciences at IIT-Gandhinagar said.

Bhattacharya who initiated the collaborative work with Zeynep Cetecioglu Gurol at KTH, said recent studies have indicated that infection with SARS-CoV-2 is frequently accompanied by persistent shedding of the virus, not only in human stool but also in urine, human saliva, spit or cough.

“The shedding of SARS-CoV-2 in stool, urine and mouth washing raises the potential to use WBE approaches for SARS-CoV-2 surveillance and epidemiological monitoring,” Bhattacharya said.

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