New study looks at sewer water to determine COVID-19 spread

Some researchers are analyzing wastewater to measure the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in localized areas, according to STAT.

In late March, researchers collected samples from a wastewater treatment plant that services an urban area of Massachusetts, according to a paper posted April 7 to medRxiv. The research team, consisting of members from Biobot Analytics, Cambridge-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston-based Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Cambridge, Mass.-based Harvard, believe the number of SARS-CoV-2 particles in the samples indicate more people were likely infected with COVID-19 than reported.  

The researchers estimate at least 2,300 people in the area of Massachusetts had COVID-19 at the time, though only 446 cases were officially reported. 

The Boston Public Health Commission and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health said the numbers were not out of the realm of possibility, according to Mariana Matus, PhD, co-founder and CEO of Biobot Analytics.

To study the pathogen, scientists create millions of copies of viral RNA from wastewater samples and look for specific markers on SARS-CoV-2 to distinguish the virus from other microbes. A high concentration of virus particles would mean COVID-19 was still a problem in the area and help officials determine appropriate precautions for healthcare workers and social distancing measures.

Researchers in the Netherlands also detected the virus in sewage samples, sometimes even before officials reported the first known COVID-19 case, according to another preprint posted last week. Both the Netherlands and Massachusetts studies have not yet been peer-reviewed. 

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