Ben Gurion University Track Coronavirus Through Sewage

A group of BGU scientists have developed a new methodology to trace the SARS-CoV-2 virus through the sewage and wastewater systems. They already determined that it is transferred through faeces into the sewage in their first round of sampling. However, no one is sure yet if the virus remains contagious in sewage. Moreover, if their new methodology is added to the regular screening tests for sewage and wastewater, it could be used to determine the extent of the current outbreak and become an early warning system for future outbreaks.

After conducting sampling at large and small wastewater treatment plants in Israel and several additional spots in the sewage pipeline of Tel Aviv area during the coronavirus outbreak, the team has confirmed SARS-CoV-2 RNA in sewage. Moreover, they found a larger concentration in the Bnei Brak area, which corresponds with an outbreak hot spot. Therefore, they believe screening sewage and wastewater could give a better indication of the spread of the virus than current methods.

The next question they are planning to answer is whether the virus is still infectious when it appears in sewage. Previous coronaviruses, like SARS, could only survive below 20 degrees Celsius for long periods in sewage. Israel is the world’s leader in reusing water from sewage (mainly for agriculture), so it is especially crucial here in Israel to determine if the virus is being passed through faeces or other routes into the sewage while remaining infectious.

If it does remain infectious, then sewage maintenance workers could be an additional vector for the spread of the virus. This is also relevant for poorer regions with worse sanitary conditions, where there is a higher risk of someone being exposed to untreated sewage. Looking to the future, the group believes that their new methodology could be incorporated as a standard screening test of sewage to provide early warning should another outbreak occur.

Prof. Ariel Kushmaro of the Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren Department of Biotechnology Engineering is the team leader. The other team members include Dr. Itay Bar-Or, a virologist from Sheba Medical Centre, Dr. Yakir Berchenko of BGU’s Department of Industrial Engineering and Management, Dr. Oded Nir, of the Department of Desalination and Water Treatment at BGU’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research ​and Prof. Eran Freedler from the Technion.

The team has already applied for grants to further the research. The project is under the auspices of BGU’s Coronavirus Task Force, which was created by BGU President Prof. Daniel Chamovitz to harness the ingenuity and research of the faculty and students to tackle the various aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In previous studies, Dr. Berchenko successfully tracked a wild poliovirus after an outbreak in the sewage system in Israel in 2013.