Testing Detects COVID-19 in California's Raw Sewage Plants

April 20, 2020

Testing has detected COVID-19 in raw sewage at Lake County, California sewer plants


Recent testing conducted at all of the sewer treatment plants operated by Lake County Special Districts have revealed the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19 (coronavirus).

Special Districts reported the testing results on Friday, according to Lake County News.

The Special Districts began participating in a project to look for evidence of SARS-CoV-2 at the treatment plants it operates last month.

The firm Biobot is conducting the surveillance testing for Special Districts as part of its COVID-19 response program.

“The reason we’re doing this is, patient testing is very limited. So if only 2,000 are being administered in the state of New York, and 200,000 people are infected, then we’re only ever going to know that up to 2,000 people have the disease. We think wastewater epidemiology can help capture all the other individuals that aren’t being tested because there’s limited access to tests,” according to Biobot Co-Founder and President Newsha Ghaeli, “Furthermore, it’s been shown that some patients are asymptomatic, so our technology can also capture those patients.”

Biobot launched its pro bono program to map COVID-19 across the U.S., in collaboration with researchers at MIT, Harvard and Brigham and Women's Hospital. The goal is to track the virus’ intensity and spread across the country and provide public health agencies with data in responding to the pandemic.

Starting Mar. 26, tests began on a weekly basis at Special Districts’ sewage treatment plants and results were available three to five days after each round of testing. According to the agency, the first four samples taken on Mar. 26 did not detect the virus and neither did the next round of samples taken on Apr. 1.

Samples taken on Apr. 8 detected the presence of SARS-CoV-2 at all four treatment plants, reported Lake County News. On Apr. 5, Lake County’s first COVID-19 case was confirmed and five other cases have since been confirmed.

“The presence of COVID-19 in all four treatment plants does suggest we may have community transmission,” said Special Districts.

So far, just over 300 tests have been conducted. 

According to the CDC, the amount of virus released from the body in stool, how long the virus is shed and whether the virus in stool is infectious are not known.

It is also unknown if there is risk for transmission from the feces of an infected person. 

Based on data so far, the risk of SARS-CoV-2 being transmitted through sewage systems is thought to be low, according to the CDC. 

County officials said Special Districts staff working in the treatment plants wear appropriate protective equipment to keep them safe. The work could also help anticipate hospital capacity and give an early warning for the reemergence of coronavirus if it has a seasonal cycle.

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Cristina Tuser

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