Wastewater surveillance for population-wide Covid-19: The present and future

Sci Total Environ. 2020 Sep 20;736:139631. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.139631. Epub 2020 May 23.


The Covid-19 pandemic (Coronavirus disease 2019) continues to expose countless unanticipated problems at all levels of the world's complex, interconnected society - global domino effects involving public health and safety, accessible health care, food security, stability of economies and financial institutions, and even the viability of democracies. These problems pose immense challenges that can voraciously consume human and capital resources. Tracking the initiation, spread, and changing trends of Covid-19 at population-wide scales is one of the most daunting challenges, especially the urgent need to map the distribution and magnitude of Covid-19 in near real-time. Other than pre-exposure prophylaxis or therapeutic treatments, the most important tool is the ability to quickly identify infected individuals. The mainstay approach for epidemics has long involved the large-scale application of diagnostic testing at the individual case level. However, this approach faces overwhelming challenges in providing fast surveys of large populations. An epidemiological tool developed and refined by environmental scientists over the last 20 years (Wastewater-Based Epidemiology - WBE) holds the potential as a key tool in containing and mitigating Covid-19 outbreaks while also minimizing domino effects such as unnecessarily long stay-at-home policies that stress humans and economies alike. WBE measures chemical signatures in sewage, such as fragment biomarkers from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), simply by applying the type of clinical diagnostic testing (designed for individuals) to the collective signature of entire communities. As such, it could rapidly establish the presence of Covid-19 infections across an entire community. Surprisingly, this tool has not been widely embraced by epidemiologists or public health officials. Presented is an overview of why and how governments should exercise prudence and begin evaluating WBE and coordinating development of a standardized WBE methodology - one that could be deployed within nationalized monitoring networks to provide intercomparable data across nations.

Keywords: Covid-19; Epidemiology; Pandemic; SARSCoV-2; Sewage; Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE).

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Betacoronavirus
  • COVID-19
  • Coronavirus Infections / epidemiology*
  • Epidemiological Monitoring*
  • Humans
  • Pandemics
  • Pneumonia, Viral / epidemiology*
  • RNA, Viral / isolation & purification
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Wastewater / virology*


  • RNA, Viral
  • Waste Water