Detection of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in wastewater for early outbreak detection


Peiying Hong’s group in the Water Desalination and Reuse Center is collaborating with KAUST Health, Safety & Environment (HSE) and Facilities Management to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus in untreated wastewater generated by the community.

World Health Organization data suggests that approximately 80 percent of COVID-19 infections are mild or asymptomatic. In particular, asymptomatic cases are concerning, as these individuals can unknowingly transmit the virus to others. 

There is therefore a strong need to detect not only the symptomatic patients butmore importantlyalso the asymptomatic individuals who may be moving around in the community during and after the outbreak has subsided. Instead of testing every individualwhich is not feasible because of the global lack of testing kits and the burden it imposes on the testing systemmonitoring for SARS-CoV-2 directly in wastewater could be an alternate method for early outbreak detection.

Monitoring for SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater has already been demonstrated in the Netherlands and in the state of Massachusetts in the U.S. By initiating a similar program at KAUST, the group aims to detect SARS-CoV-2-infected community members who have gone previously undetected using the current quarantine and swab-testing system. The data obtained from wastewater monitoring could facilitate the HSE department to adopt appropriate intervention measures and to establish a plan to begin to return to business as usual.

Pending a successful pilot of the program, monitoring could be expanded beyond KAUST to meet the needs of the Kingdom. In collaboration with the Saudi Ministry of Health, wastewater sampling in Jeddah has commenced. By developing a continuous monitoring effort on wastewater for pathogenic viruses, a surveillance network that can potentially predict future outbreaks of other novel viruses could be established.

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Peiying Hong