Israeli scientists have developed a new methodology to trace the SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) virus through the sewage and wastewater systems.

After sampling at wastewater treatment plants and in the sewage pipeline of the Tel Aviv area during the coronavirus outbreak, the team confirmed SARS-CoV-2 RNA is present in human waste. They even found a larger concentration in one known outbreak hotspot.

Screening sewage and wastewater, they conclude, could give a better indication of the spread of the virus than current methods. It could even become an early-warning system for future outbreaks.

However, no one knows yet if and for how long the virus remains contagious in sewage.

If it does remain infectious, then sewage maintenance workers could be an additional vector for the spread of the virus. This is also relevant for poorer regions where there is a higher risk of someone being exposed to untreated sewage.

Oded Nir of the Department of Desalination and Water Treatment at BGU’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research. Photo by Michal Levita Nir

The team has applied for grants to further their research, which was carried out under the auspices of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Coronavirus Task Force.

Led by Prof. Ariel Kushmaro of BGU’s Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren Department of Biotechnology Engineering, the team includes Dr. Itay Bar-Or, a virologist from Sheba Medical Center; Yakir Berchenko of BGU’s Department of Industrial Engineering and Management; Oded Nir of the Department of Desalination and Water Treatment at BGU’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research; and Prof. Eran Freedler from the Technion.

In a previous study, Berchenko successfully tracked a wild poliovirus after an outbreak in the sewage system in Israel in 2013.