The University of Barcelona team, who had been testing waste water since mid-April this year to identify potential new outbreaks, have found of the novel coronavirus in a sample of Barcelona waste water collected in March 2019. This was nine months before the COVID-19 disease was identified in China.
The discovery of virus genome presence so early in Spain, if confirmed, would imply the disease may have appeared much earlier than the scientific community thought.
The University of Barcelona team has now decided to also run tests on older samples.
They first found the virus was present in Barcelona on January 15, 2020, 41 days before the first case was officially reported there.
Then they ran tests on samples taken between January 2018 and December 2019 and found the presence of the virus genome in one of them, collected on March 12, 2019.
“The levels of SARS-CoV-2 were low but were positive,” research leader Albert Bosch was quoted as saying by the university.
The research has been submitted for a peer review.
Bosch said that an early detection even in January could have improved the response to the pandemic. Instead, patients were probably misdiagnosed with common flu, contributing to community transmission before measures were taken.
Similar study conducted in Italy also suggested the same thing, that coronavirus might appeared much earlier than it is widely believed.
“Results confirmed by two different methods in two different laboratories indicate the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in samples taken in Milan and Turin on December 18, 2019 and in Bologna on January, 29, 2020,” said Giuseppina La Rosa at the Department of Environment and Health of the Italian National Health Institute.
Authors noted the science of sewage surveillance could be deployed in countries across the world to help monitor the spread of national epidemics of COVID-19 while reducing the need for mass testing.