Tracking the course of the pandemic in wastewater

The novel coronavirus has been successfully detected in wastewater – even at low concentrations, in samples collected at an early stage of the outbreak. Researchers at EPFL and Eawag are now working to optimise the method. The aim is to develop a system which could warn of a resurgence of cases earlier than clinical diagnostic tests.

“Detection and quantification of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater” – research projects on this scale generally take several years. But now, thanks to major efforts, a group of scientists led by Professor Tamar Kohn (Environmental Chemistry Laboratory) at EPFL and Dr Christoph Ort (Urban Water Management) and Dr Tim Julian (Environmental Microbiology) at Eawag have shown that an idea like this can be realised within a matter of weeks. Initial wastewater samples from Lausanne, Zurich and Lugano have been analysed, including – in each of the latter two cases – a sample from the period at the end of February when the first cases of infection were recorded in Switzerland. The researchers managed to detect the novel coronavirus in all the samples analysed. Concentrations in the more recent samples are so high that analysis appears to be relatively easy. But, as Tamar Kohn points out, this does not apply to the samples from February: “We didn’t expect that we’d already be able to measure a signal in wastewater from Lugano, with only one, and from Zurich, with only six known cases.”

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Source: eawag