Research into domestic wastewaters seeks to establish an early warning system for the SARS-CoV-2 virus

As from 20 April, work on the COVIDETECT research project has been ongoing within the framework of designing an early warning system for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the etiologic agent of COVID-19, through analysing domestic wastewaters and thereby contributing to improving the response to any eventual new outbreaks of the disease. Coordinated by AdP - Águas de Portugal and ranked as priority by the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, this project aims to produce a tool for detecting, quantifying, characterising and modelling the virus through analysis undertaken in Wastewater Treatment Plants.

The consortium engaging in this project are also members of the Faculty of Science of Lisbon University, the entity ensuring not only project scientific coordination but also the modelling activities capturing the dynamics SARS-CoV-2 within sanitation networks, the eco-epidemiological modelling and reconstructing the viral genomes; the Analysis Laboratory of the Higher Technical Institute of Lisbon University, responsible for developing the methodologies for detecting and quantifying the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in domestic wastewaters; Águas do Tejo Atlântico, Águas do Norte and SIMDOURO as the managing entities for the sanitation systems serving the key metropolitan areas of Portugal, and the General Directorate of Health as members of the advisory board. This entity also contains representatives of EPALÁguas do Douro e Paiva and ERSAR

The COVIDETECT research project targets the evidence contained in faecal excretions (not overlooking urinary excretions) of the COVID-19 etiological agent from infected individuals. The regular monitoring for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in effluent streams from near leading hospitals for the treatment of infectious diseases and areas with the greatest levels of populational density shall enable the identification of the contamination profile of wastewaters in terms of the load of genetic virus material and its relationship with the numbers of known infected persons. 

Taking into consideration the impossibility to test the entire population, the virus incubation period through to the development of symptoms and in addition to the presence of asymptomatic individuals, this monitoring may return an important tool capable of acting as an early warning system, ascertaining the circulation of the virus in the population prior to its actual emergence in the community. The final objective is to deploy wastewater treatment plants as ‘watch dogs’ for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 and establish a means of implementing an early warning system that transfers information to the competent authorities and contributes to improving the national capacity for preparing and responding to any eventual new outbreaks.

The project foresees a first phase of methodology development and validation spanning approximately one month followed by monitoring the wastewater treatment plant for the following six-month period in parallel with the eco-epidemiological modelling of the viral loads and the sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 genomes present in the respective wastewaters.

20 of April of 2020