Could COVID-19 in wastewater be infectious?

August 24, 2020

BEER-SHEVA, Israel...August 24, 2020 - Wastewater containing coronaviruses may be a serious threat, according to a new, global study led by researchers from the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU).

The new paper, published in Nature Sustainability, by an international collaboration of 35 researchers, evaluates recent studies on coronaviruses in wastewater and previous airborne infectious diseases, including SARS and MERS. The goal is to evaluate potential threats, avenues of research and possible solutions, as well as garner beneficial perspectives for the future.

"There is ample reason to be concerned about how long coronaviruses survive in wastewater and how it impacts natural water sources," says lead author Dr. Edo Bar-Zeev of the BGU Zuckerberg Institute. "Can wastewater contain enough coronaviruses to infect people? The simple truth is that we do not know enough and that needs to be rectified as soon as possible."

Bar-Zeev, and his postdoc student, Anne Bogler, together with other renowned researchers, indicate that sewage leaking into natural watercourses might lead to infection via airborne spray. Similarly, treated wastewater used to fill recreational water facilities, like lakes and rivers, could also become sources of contagion. Lastly, fruits and vegetables irrigated with wastewater that were not properly disinfected could also be an indirect infection route.

The research team recommends immediate, new research to determine the level of potential infection, if any, and how long coronaviruses last in various bodies of water and spray.

"Wastewater treatment plants need to upgrade their treatment protocols and in the near future also advance toward tertiary treatment through micro- and ultra-filtration membranes, which successfully remove viruses," Bar-Zeev and his colleagues say.

At the same time, wastewater can serve as a canary in a coal mine because it can be monitored to track COVID-19 outbreaks. Coronaviruses start showing up in feces before other symptoms like fevers and coughs show up in otherwise asymptomatic people. Regular monitoring, therefore, can give authorities advance warning of hot spots. BGU researchers recently completed a pilot study in Ashkelon, Israel using new methodology to detect and trace the presence of the virus and calculate its concentration to pinpoint emerging COVID-19 hotspots. Other BGU researchers are working on developing water nanofiltration technologies.
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BGU researchers who participated in this study include: Prof. Amit Gross, Prof. Noam Weisbrod, Dr. Oded Nir, Prof. Osnat Gillor, Prof. Shai Arnon, Dr. Yakir Berchenko, Prof. Zeev Ronen, Prof. Ariel Kushmaro, Prof. Avner Ronen, and Prof. Jacob Moran-Gilad.

Additional researchers from the U.S. were from Yale University, Northwestern University, Drexel University, Temple University, Rice University, and the University of Notre Dame, Illinois. Other participants include researchers from University Limoges, France; Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany; University of Girona, Spain; University of Venice, Italy; ETH Zurich, Switzerland; University College Cork, Ireland; and Tianjin Polytechnic University, China.

About American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (AABGU) plays a vital role in sustaining David Ben-Gurion's vision: creating a world-class institution of education and research in the Israeli desert, nurturing the Negev community and sharing the University's expertise locally and around the globe. Celebrating the 50th birthday of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) this year, AABGU imagines a future that goes beyond the walls of academia. It is a future where BGU invents a new world and inspires a vision for a stronger Israel and its next generation of leaders. Together with supporters, AABGU will help the University foster excellence in teaching, research and outreach to the communities of the Negev for the next 50 years and beyond. AABGU, headquartered in Manhattan, has regional offices throughout the United States. For more information visit http://www.aabgu.org.

American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev

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