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Is it safe to re-open? The answer might be in your toilet

Why researchers are monitoring wastewater to measure the spread of coronavirus through communities

Dr. Justin Jacob with the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences runs a mock COVID-19 sample test inside a mobile testing lab unit that will be testing in response to the coronavirus outbreak, Tuesday, April 28, 2020, in Washington. A team of technicians will be able to test up to 50 samples within four hours and provide same day results.
Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

Scientists tracking the novel coronavirus as it spreads through communities are turning to an unsavory yet universal source: the sewer.

Researchers around the globe are studying “wastewater-based-epidemiology,” reported the Los Angeles Times. Research shows that monitoring sewage can help to measure the spread and scale of the a virus, allowing government health officials to determine when to ease social distancing orders.

“With wastewater, you can very quickly get a snapshot of an entire population,” said Mariana Matus, cofounder of start-up Biobot Analytics, according to the Los Angeles Times. “The closest approach to replicating the data from wastewater would be to literally test every single person in a community and then take the average of that. It is very powerful.”

Biobot Analytics — which traces its roots to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — began by tracking the country’s opioid crisis through its wastewater, but has shifted to COVID-19. The company has completed one coronavirus study in Massachusetts, with a team of other research partners, that is awaiting peer review. Hundreds of wastewater treatment plants across the country have asked for testing.

Experts believe wastewater can offer an early warning if the coronavirus begins to spike in a certain area. For decades, similar testing has been used to identify norovirus, Hepatitis A, polio and other outbreaks — even before clinical cases could be identified — according to the Los Angeles Times.

A monthlong study of wastewater in Paris — that also needs peer-review— detected a curve in the concentration of the coronavirus that matched the city’s outbreak of COVID-19 cases, according to Science magazine. The researchers said they saw a spike in the virus before it was echoed by confirmed cases in France’s capital.

“This visibility is also going to help us predict a second wave of outbreaks,” Sébastien Wurtzer, a Parisian public water virologist, told Science.

Additional studies will be needed to refine COVID-19 wastewater testing. One expert told the Los Angeles Times that sewage testing is quick and relatively inexpensive.