LONDON — Poop doesn’t lie.
That’s why scientists are looking at sewers running under the world’s cities and towns for information they hope will help to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Sewers are treasure troves of information, containing genetic material of COVID-19 shed by those with the virus in their fecal matter — even if they are asymptomatic.
A recent study has also shown that viral levels in wastewater correlated with clinically diagnosed new COVID-19 cases and might reflect disease prevalence before it’s reported by doctors, raising hopes that the sewage could become an early warning system — a canary in a coal mine of sorts — for new outbreaks.
In the United Kingdom, a group of researchers on Thursday launched a cross-country epidemiology surveillance program, dubbed N-WESP network, in what will become one of the biggest international undertakings looking into wastewater surveillance for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
They will be trying to develop models that would correlate viral RNA, the genetic material of the coronavirus, found in wastewater with the actual number of COVID-19 cases in the community that produced that wastewater in the first place.
“Once the science matures, which will hopefully be on the order of a few months, we will be helping to provide the methods that will be used to generate the data needed to inform decisions on lockdown,” said Andrew Singer, the project’s chief researcher and senior scientist at the U.K. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.
The U.K. suffered the worst COVID-19 outbreak in Europe with more than 43,900 deaths and 313,000 cases, forcing millions of people into lockdown.
And British health authorities have been testing thousands of people every day to keep track of the virus’ spread as its economy reopens and lockdown restrictions are lifted. However, it’s usually people with symptoms or known exposure to confirmed cases that are screened. It is these asymptomatic people with no symptoms, who can still spread the virus, who are often missed.
That’s where researchers hope sewage testing can come in, using virus genetic material to conclusively quantify how many people in the population are shedding the virus at any given point in time. While it can’t identify which specific individuals have the virus, it gives a more…