A new test to detect SARS-CoV-2 in the wastewater of communities infected with the virus is being developed by researchers from Cranfield University and the Institute of Geochemistry.

The wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) approach may provide an effective and rapid way to predict the potential spread of novel coronavirus pneumonia (COVID-19) by picking up on biomarkers in faeces and urine from disease carriers that enter the sewer system.

Rapid testing kits using paper-based devices could be used onsite at wastewater treatment plants to trace sources and determine whether there are potential COVID-19 carriers in local areas.

“In the case of asymptomatic infections in the community or when people are not sure whether they are infected or not, real-time community sewage detection through paper analytical devices could determine whether there are COVID-19 carriers in an area to enable rapid screening, quarantine and prevention,” said Dr. Zhugen Yang, lecturer in Sensor Technology at the Cranfield Water Science Institute.

“If COVID-19 can be monitored in a community at an early stage through WBE, effective intervention can be taken as early as possible to restrict the movements of that local population, working to minimise the pathogen spread and threat to public health,” Yang added.

Recent studies have shown that live SARS-CoV-2 can be isolated from the faeces and urine of infected people. Studies have also shown that the virus can typically survive for up to several days in an appropriate environment after exiting the human body.

“We have already developed a paper device for testing genetic material in wastewater for proof-of-concept, and this provides clear potential to test for infection with adaption,” said Yang. “This device is cheap (costing less than £1) and will be easy to use for non-experts after further improvement.”

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“We foresee that the device will be able to offer a complete and immediate picture of population health once this sensor can be deployed in the near future,” Yang added.

WBE is already recognised as an effective way to trace illicit drugs and obtain information on health, disease, and pathogens. Dr. Yang has developed a similar paper-based device to successfully conduct tests for rapid veterinary diagnosis in India and for malaria in blood among rural populations in Uganda.

Paper analytical devices are easy to stack, store and transport because they are thin and lightweight, and can also be incinerated after use, reducing the risk of further contamination.

An overview of the approach has recently been published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal. The article—Can a Paper-Based Device Trace COVID-19 Sources with Wastewater-Based Epidemiology?—was co-authored with Hua Zhang and Kang Mao of the Institute of Geochemistry, which is located in Guiyang, China.

Header Image Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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