The Sewage Solution
  • Anoushka GHOSH

The Sewage Solution

The world yearns to return to ‘normal’, to life in the pre-virus days of 2019. Days when we could meet friends unmasked. Days when we could walk in and out of anywhere, without having to scan a QR code. Days when a thermometer wasn’t pointed at us, every time we stepped out of the house.


The world yearns for the coronavirus to be eradicated.


And scientists are working tirelessly, to do just this. Multiple teams around the world are searching for vaccines to prevent the disease and new tests have been developed to identify if a patient is infected. The Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research has a less common take on curbing the spread of the virus - testing sewage.


The idea is simple. The COVID-19 virus, like most other living things, replicates through its Ribonucleic Acid, or RNA. This RNA is present in our feces, and therefore in our sewage. This sewage water can be tested, and upon finding the concentration of the RNA in the wastewater, researchers will be able to estimate the number of people who have the virus. This way, they will be able to detect surges in infections, alert authorities, and prevent further spread of the virus.


Executing this concept, however, is not nearly as easy. Since RNA is so small, investigating and searching for it in the large samples is quite pointless, like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Therefore, researchers must take tiny samples, scaling down the measurements form liters to microlitres before they can even begin to run tests and find the virus’ RNA. Once scaled down, scientists can proceed towards measuring concentrations of RNA in the sludge. According to the German researchers, identifying a surge in this way would be the first step towards containing the virus. "You would start with our measurement and then you would know where to go to look for the reasons. Normally it is a hospital, or I don't know, a factory where you have an outbreak. And then one would have to test the people.”, said Hauke Harms, a researcher leading the study, when he spoke to CNN.


By monitoring sewage from different plants, scientists would be able to isolate virus spread to different parts of the city (depending on which parts are served by the respective plants), helping in pinpointing who is affected, before taking action. As said by Prof. Dr. Harms, thorough testing would normally occur later on in the preventing process, after pinpointing where the outbreak happened. The Sewage Solution allows preliminary testing of an entire population to take place at the same time as the area of the outbreak is found, rather than finding the place of the outbreak and then doing individual tests. Afterward, the process becomes much more efficient.


Though fairly uncommon, the team from The Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research is not the only one taking an interest in examining sewage water to test for the Novel Coronavirus. The Dutch KWR Water Research Institute has also been testing sewage water and found traces of the virus in six sewage plants.


This new method of testing, allows Germany to be prepared, should there be another wave of the virus that hits its population. As samples are picked up every two minutes, researchers are fairly certain that they will be able to detect the hypothetical new wave in a day, and therefore the government should be able to implement protective measures much sooner than they would have without the knowledge brought about by testing sewage water. The next step in this research is to fully automate the process.


Works Cited

Pleitgen, Fred. “Sewage Could Hold the Key to Stopping New Coronavirus Outbreaks.” CNN, Cable News Network, 1 June 2020, edition.cnn.com/2020/06/01/europe/germany-sewage- coronavirus-detection-intl/index.html.


Aronson, Jeffrey K. “Coronaviruses - a General Introduction.” CEBM, 20 May 2020, www.cebm.net/covid-19/coronaviruses-a-general-introduction/.


Billings, Lucy, and Martin Mukhanu. What Is RNA | Genetics | Biology | FuseSchool. FuseSchool - Global Education, YouTube, 9 Mar. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4p6jhFaru4.


Home - Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research, 18 June 2020, www.ufz.de/index.php? en=33573.

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