Faecal Matter Offers Clues, Scientists Track Coronavirus Through Waste

The novel coronavirus is no exception. Human excrement has been valuable for researchers studying the virus, the genetic material of which can be detected in stool and wastewater.

Faecal Matter Offers Clues, Scientists Track Coronavirus Through Waste

Fecal matter can offer clues about the drugs a community is using. (Representational)

Scientists discover many secrets in sewage systems. Fecal matter can offer clues about the drugs a community is using and the pathogens in circulation.

The novel coronavirus is no exception. Human excrement has been valuable for researchers studying the virus, the genetic material of which can be detected in stool and wastewater.

Across the United States, scientists have been analyzing sewage to determine how intense outbreaks might be or to predict where the next one might be developing. Sewage tests cannot identify individual cases, but they can help some communities, such as universities, respond to outbreaks in particular areas or buildings.

Elsewhere in the world, countries have been expanding their use of sewage sampling. Here are some of their key findings.


Every day at 5 am, scientists in Ottawa receive samples of the previous day's sewage to test for traces of the coronavirus in wastewater pooled from "over a million souls," said Alex MacKenzie, a senior scientist at the CHEO research institute.

MacKenzie is part of a team at CHEO and the University of Ottawa that piloted the program, which the Ottawa Public Health Department uses to provide daily reports on covid-19's spread. In early October, MacKenzie's team reported that concentrations of the coronavirus in the area's wastewater had doubled in the past month and increased tenfold since June.

Other cities and provinces across Canada, as well as several universities, are watching sewage systems for signs of the virus.

Such testing provides crucial information at little cost, MacKenzie said. Each sample costs several hundred dollars and gives a reliable snapshot of the big picture, and there are few privacy concerns because the tests do not detect individual infections.

"There' a general realization that we should be doing this as much as possible," he said.

The model could have applications for vulnerable populations, he said, such as those living in homeless shelters, prisons and elder-care homes, if plumbing systems in buildings or apartment blocs were frequently tested.

While many countries and cities test wastewater for virus RNA, MacKenzie said his team is also looking for the protein that surrounds the genetic matter. The virus RNA, he said, "is a fragile beast," while the protein is sturdier and could provide an even more accurate picture of the virus' spread.

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The Netherlands

In early February, over a month before the global pandemic was declared, scientists from the Dutch KWR Water Research Institute in Nieuwegein began periodically testing sewage samples from seven cities and one airport, according to a paper they published in July. Initial tests came back negative. But on March 5, Dutch scientists detected the coronavirus in wastewater at a treatment plant in Amersfoort, about 32 miles southeast of Amsterdam. Weeks later, Amersfoort's first case of the virus was confirmed.

Since March, the Netherlands' National Institute for Public Health and the Environment has been taking weekly samples from sewage systems across the country. As in the first study, researchers were able to detect small traces of the virus before cases or outbreaks were confirmed. While the program began with just a few dozen sites, since Sept. 7 the institute has been testing each of the country's more than 300 sewage treatment centers, according to its website.


Hong Kong

During the 2003 SARS outbreak, researchers in Hong Kong were puzzled by how the virus had infected hundreds of people in a 33-story apartment building. Their conclusion: SARS, a coronavirus related to the one causing covid-19, probably had aerosolized and spread through the plumbing system. Scientists narrowed in on a patient zero, who had diarrhea in a bathroom in the building, where the plumbing was faulty.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports says it is "unclear whether the virus found in feces may be capable of causing covid-19." But researchers from the early days of the pandemic have been studying the virus' genetic matter in the fecal matter of patients.

Scientists in Hong Kong were curious whether stool samples from certain populations might aid in detecting the virus better than diagnostic tests, which can produce false negatives. In a report in September, researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong concluded that this approach could be useful for identifying asymptomatic cases, as the virus may still be detectable in stool samples after its gone from a patient's respiratory tract, Reuters reported.

The researchers, who began the study in March, also said stool samples could be useful for testing infants and others for whom taking a nose swab is difficult. They found that infants and children tended to have higher viral loads in their fecal matter than adults. Scientists are expanding the study.


In addition to tracking outbreaks, researchers are interested in what evidence about the origins of the pandemic sewage can provide. In northern Italy, where the coronavirus took a heavy toll in March and April, scientists from the Italian National Institutes of Health analyzed sewage samples collected from 40 wastewater treatment centers between October 2019 and February 2020.

The coronavirus, they found, was first detected in samples from Milan and Turin on Dec. 18, nearly two weeks before China reported that a mysterious virus was circulating in the city of Wuhan.


The Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare announced on April 22 that it would monitor the virus in sewage systems across the country.

In August, after a decline in cases over the summer, the institute issued a warning: The virus had been detected in sewage water from five new locations. "The area may contain unidentified infected people and the virus may be spreading in the population of the area," Tarja Pitkanen, a senior researcher at the country's National Institute for Health and Welfare, said in a statement.

In the following weeks, cases increased. In early October, the institute warned that the spread of the virus was "clearly accelerating." Even with the uptick, Finland's coronavirus count of just over 14,000 confirmed infections is relatively low.

A number of countries in Europe, including Germany and France, have also been monitoring sewage systems. Like elsewhere, coronavirus RNA levels there have reportedly risen and fallen in close tandem to overall infection patterns.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)