Sewage could be key in detecting coronavirus outbreaks

LEIPZIG, Germany (CNN) - Your excrement might be one of the best hopes to quickly detect coronavirus outbreaks because the disease can quickly be identified in feces, even before coronavirus tests.

German researchers in Leipzig are testing wastewater to detect the virus.

Research institutes and some public works are in the middle of a massive trial to locate new outbreaks fast by finding the virus in wastewater.

“If it would be possible to have an idea of the concentration of coronavirus in the waste water, we can calculate the number of, infected people in Leipzig, and this would be very interesting in the coronavirus strategies,” said. Dr. Ulrich Meyer, technical director at Leipzig Waterworks.

Germany is among several countries experimenting to see whether sewage could be a COVID-19 early warning system.

Researchers found out very early on during the pandemic that indeed COVID-19 can be traced in feces. The big question is, can that be done on a regular automated basis, and can it be done in a large area like, for instance, an entire country?

The biggest problem: Finding even small traces of the virus in a lot of sludge.

At the renowned Helmholtz Center for Environmental Studies, virologist Dr. Rene Kallies is trying to do just that, aiming to extract parts of the virus’ genome called the RNA from large samples of sewage.

"We have a high volume of waste, and I think it's a challenge to find the traces of the virus in the base models. So we have liters and we have to scale it down to microliters to get a sufficient amount for extraction. I think that's a challenge," Kallies said.

If they succeed in the future, sudden spikes of coronavirus in samples from certain sewage plants could tell authorities where new outbreaks are happening and allow them to quickly react, one of the heads of the study said.

“It would be the first test line actually, start with our measurement and then you would know where to go to look for the reasons,” microbiologist Hauke Harms said.

With that knowledge, authorities could then initiate targeted testing for those areas to quickly contain outbreaks.

The scientists say their model could be ready for deployment if and when the next wave of the novel coronavirus hits.

“I think we can offer something before the next wave, actually," Harms said. "So if the next wave is coming in in fall or early winter also, then we should have something.”

The scientists acknowledge they still have a long and difficult way to go, but they are confident they might indeed find a way to make feces into a natural coronavirus alarm.

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