Detection of SARS-CoV-2 in raw and treated wastewater in Germany - Suitability for COVID-19 surveillance and potential transmission risks

Sci Total Environ. 2021 Jan 10;751:141750. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.141750. Epub 2020 Aug 18.


Wastewater-based monitoring of the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 virus, also referred to as wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE), has been suggested as a tool to support epidemiology. An extensive sampling campaign, including nine municipal wastewater treatment plants, has been conducted in different cities of the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany) on the same day in April 2020, close to the first peak of the corona crisis. Samples were processed and analysed for a set of SARS-CoV-2-specific genes, as well as pan-genotypic gene sequences also covering other coronavirus types, using reverse transcription-quantitative polymerase chain reaction (RT-qPCR). Additionally, a comprehensive set of chemical reference parameters and bioindicators was analysed to characterize the wastewater quality and composition. Results of the RT-qPCR based gene analysis indicate the presence of SARS-CoV-2 genetic traces in different raw wastewaters. Furthermore, selected samples have been sequenced using Sanger technology to confirm the specificity of the RT-qPCR and the origin of the coronavirus. A comparison of the particle-bound and the dissolved portion of SARS-CoV-2 virus genes shows that quantifications must not neglect the solid-phase reservoir. The infectivity of the raw wastewater has also been assessed by viral outgrowth assay with a potential SARS-CoV-2 host cell line in vitro, which were not infected when exposed to the samples. This first evidence suggests that wastewater might be no major route for transmission to humans. Our findings draw attention to the need for further methodological and molecular assay validation for enveloped viruses in wastewater.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; SARS-CoV-2 replication in vitro; Wastewater treatment; Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE).

MeSH terms

  • Betacoronavirus
  • COVID-19
  • Cities
  • Coronavirus Infections*
  • Germany / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Pandemics*
  • Pneumonia, Viral*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Wastewater*


  • Waste Water