What if we could detect an outbreak a week before testing shows it, using minimal effort and something readily available? If something smells fishy, it’s not fish; it’s poo.
Case counts climb at light-speed, and once we realize the virus is spreading, it can take weeks to bend the curve via distancing measures. Getting a seven-day lead on the virus means we can act to stop the silent spread, the thing that has troubled containment efforts from the beginning.
Where the influenza virus may incubate for 24-48 hours, a person could share the coronavirus for over a week before feeling sick, if that person ever feels sick at all. The virus appears in stool samples regardless of whether someone has symptoms.
For the data to show an outbreak, there has to be widespread testing.
For testing to reflect rapid spread, people must seek testing.
People must feel ill before they seek testing, but many infected people have no symptoms.
Around 250 million Americans already send their waste to one of 16,000 American treatment plants. This information has literally been flushed down the toilet. The dispatched waste (sewage) travels to a central location where—to put it delicately—the solids separate from the liquid into sludge. Scientists described it as a “well-mixed” sample.
Screening sewage could reveal a more accurate picture of infection rates where testing has been scarce. This stinky solution offers an affordable way to keep tabs on the real-time movement of the virus. It could work for wealthy and poor nations alike.
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The study referenced above is SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations in primary municipal sewage sludge as a leading indicator of COVID-19 outbreak dynamics by Jordan Peccia, Alessandro Zulli, Doug E. Brackney, Nathan D. Grubaugh, Edward H. Kaplan, Arnau Casanovas-Massana, Albert I. Ko, Amyn A. Malik, Dennis Wang, Mike Wang, Daniel M. Weinberger, Saad B. Omer, a preprint study. This article has not yet been peer-reviewed.