Can the novel coronavirus be traced in sewage systems?

As the pandemic progresses, scientists are looking for ways to track the spread of COVID-19. Along with testing and contact tracing, one possible tool is wastewater or sewage surveillance. 

Sewage surveillance involves testing wastewater samples in order to pinpoint where the novel coronavirus circulates. This type of environmental surveillance has been used to help track and control other diseases in the past, including polio. 

So how does it work? Scientists test wastewater for trace genetic material of a specific virus. If they find evidence of that virus, they alert public health workers in the area. Those officials can then investigate further, for instance by testing people in the community. This process can help officials catch localized outbreaks early, and it could inform approaches for safely re-opening businesses and activities. 

Reports from multiple countries suggest that it may be possible to detect trace material of this coronavirus in wastewater, so expect to hear more about this as a part of our toolkit for tracking COVID-19. But evidence of coronavirus in wastewater does not mean that you are at risk of infection if you come into contact with it. In fact, it’s not at all clear whether this coronavirus can spread from poop to a person—for now, there are no such reported cases of COVID-19.


Last update: June 25, 2020, 3:30 PM ET

Science review: ERS