The recent detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in feces has led to speculation that it can be transmitted via the fecal-oral/ocular route. This review aims to critically evaluate the incidence of gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, the quantity and infectivity of SARS-CoV-2 in feces and urine, and whether these pose an infection risk in sanitary settings, sewage networks, wastewater treatment plants, and the wider environment (e.g. rivers, lakes and marine waters). A review of 48 independent studies revealed that severe GI dysfunction is only evident in a small number of COVID-19 cases, with 11 ± 2% exhibiting diarrhea and 12 ± 3% exhibiting vomiting and nausea. In addition to these cases, SARS-CoV-2 RNA can be detected in feces from some asymptomatic, mildly- and pre-symptomatic individuals. Fecal shedding of the virus peaks in the symptomatic period and can persist for several weeks, but with declining abundances in the post-symptomatic phase. SARS-CoV-2 RNA is occasionally detected in urine, but reports in fecal samples are more frequent. The abundance of the virus genetic material in both urine (ca. 102-105 gc/ml) and feces (ca. 102-107 gc/ml) is much lower than in nasopharyngeal fluids (ca. 105-1011 gc/ml). There is strong evidence of multiplication of SARS-CoV-2 in the gut and infectious virus has occasionally been recovered from both urine and stool samples. The level and infectious capability of SARS-CoV-2 in vomit remain unknown. In comparison to enteric viruses transmitted via the fecal-oral route (e.g. norovirus, adenovirus), the likelihood of SARS-CoV-2 being transmitted via feces or urine appears much lower due to the lower relative amounts of virus present in feces/urine. The biggest risk of transmission will occur in clinical and care home settings where secondary handling of people and urine/fecal matter occurs. In addition, while SARS-CoV-2 RNA genetic material can be detected by in wastewater, this signal is greatly reduced by conventional treatment. Our analysis also suggests the likelihood of infection due to contact with sewage-contaminated water (e.g. swimming, surfing, angling) or food (e.g. salads, shellfish) is extremely low or negligible based on very low predicted abundances and limited environmental survival of SARS-CoV-2. These conclusions are corroborated by the fact that tens of million cases of COVID-19 have occurred globally, but exposure to feces or wastewater has never been implicated as a transmission vector.
Keywords: Bathing waters; Fecal-oral route; Infection risk; Sanitation; Waterborne illness.
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