Topline: Scientists in the Netherlands detected COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in a city’s sewage system before any cases were officially reported by human testing, indicating that wastewater tests could be used as an early warning sign of rising coronavirus cases.

  • The study, which hasn’t been peer reviewed, was published by the KWR Water Research Institute, a research group based in the Netherlands.
  • The researchers found COVID-19 in the wastewater in the city of Amersfoort on March 5, before any cases were reported in that city through testing, but after the Netherlands reported its first case in the country.
  • The authors say the early results show “sewage surveillance could also serve as early warning of (re-)emergence of COVID-19 in cities,” especially when testing is limited.
  • Though the virus is unlikely to be transmitted by sewer water, the authors write, traces of the coronavirus will show up in sewage systems because the disease’s RNA can be detected in stool.
  • The study authors caution their methods need further substantiation and validation, but say the findings could provide “the water sector will have a tool that provides valuable additional information about the spread of the virus in the population.”

Crucial quote: “It is important to collect information about the occurrence and fate of this new virus in sewage to understand if there is no risk to sewage workers, but also to determine if sewage surveillance could be used to monitor the circulation of SARS-CoV-2 in our communities, that could complement current clinical surveillance, which is limited to the COVID-19 patients with the most severe symptoms,” the study says.

News peg: Public health experts say the coronavirus could come back in another wave during the fall after a slump in the summer months. Globally, there are more than 900,000 coronavirus cases, with the most infections in the U.S. The Netherlands has 13,696 cases, according to Johns Hopkins.