Testing Sewage Can Predict COVID-19 Spikes

Elizabeth Borneman


Clues that could help us in the fight against the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are being found in the unlikeliest of places- wastewater.

Researchers have taken samples of wastewater and sewage from around the country and found genetic material from the COVID-19 virus. This data could be used to track regional coronavirus outbreaks and give experts a clearer idea of the number of infected residents in a region.

Individuals who have been affected by the coronavirus, whether or not they are symptomatic, can pass the virus’s genetic material through bodily fluids, including human waste products. While it is currently not clear if the virus can be transmitted through waste products, researchers can learn a lot about the spread of the virus through sampling.

Wastewater Sampling for COVID-19 Presence

Individuals who are asymptomatic or haven’t been tested for the coronavirus won’t show up in the official public health numbers.

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However, the concentration of coronavirus RNA in sewage could point researchers toward a clearer picture of how many residents have been infected by the virus in a specific area. Additionally, new information shows that spikes in infection rates can be detected by up to a week’s notice using wastewater samples. 

A sewage treatment plant. Photo: Montgomery County, CC BY 2.0
A sewage treatment plant. Photo: Trout Run Sewage Treatment Plant by Montgomery County, license CC BY 2.0

While a week may not seem like a long time, any amount of lead time that health experts can have gives them that much more of a chance to prepare, warn residents, and save lives. Healthcare facilities could prepare for more positive tests and hospital admissions, while residents could take added precautions knowing that there is a regional outbreak. 

Wastewater sampling was conducted in parts of Connecticut, where researchers detected an increase in COVID-19 genetic material located in sewage a week before a peak in cases arrived in that area. Researchers were able to compare the amount of COVID-19 genetic material that was found in wastewater samples with a rise in hospitalizations and positive test results in a localized area. 

Future Implications of Using Sewage Testing for Tracking the Coronavirus

While this practice is not currently widespread, testing wastewater is another tool in our arsenal to combat COVID-19.

Wastewater sampling is already used to track other pathogens including norovirus, poliovirus, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This research could be used to learn more about infection rates, how COVID-19 spreads, and how to potentially stop it in the future. 

Testing sewage for COVID-19 should be done alongside social distancing measures, contact tracing efforts, wearing facemasks, and other localized quarantine regulations to slow the spread of coronavirus and keep our healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed. 


Peccia, J., Zulli, A., Brackney, D. E., Grubaugh, N. D., Kaplan, E. H., Casanovas-Massana, A., … & Weinberger, D. M. (2020). SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations in primary municipal sewage sludge as a leading indicator of COVID-19 outbreak dynamics. medRxiv. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.05.19.20105999

Garcia de Jesus, Erin. Wastewater could provide up to a week of warning for a COVID-19 spike. 28 May 2020. Retrieved from https://www.sciencenews.org/article/coronavirus-covid-19-wastewater-sewage-warning-monitoring


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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.