Coronavirus can spread through sewage systems, say experts

While the phrase may start to sound cliche, it still rings true! These are truly unparalleled times. The past few weeks have been nothing short of an immense change for all of us, leading us to adapt and change our lives and businesses to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. 

With the lockdown being lifted in several countries, health officials all over the world are broadening the search for the people infected and focusing on slowing the spread. This includes finding all possible sources through which the virus can spread. When the response to the pandemic has been focused mostly on preventing community spread, Professor Quilliam and colleagues at the University of Stirling, recently released a paper warning that sewage system can play as a potential COVID-19 transmission risk and that it must not be neglected in this battle to protect human health. 

Can COVID-19 really survive in human feces or sewer systems?  POSSIBLY.

With years of studying the transport of bacteria in various marine environments, Professor Quilliam stated that “We know that COVID-19 is spread through droplets from coughs and sneezes, or via objects or materials that carry infection. However, it has recently been confirmed that the virus can also be found in human feces – up to 33 days after the patient has tested negative for the respiratory symptoms of COVID-19″. 

The authors explained that given the structure of COVID-19, specifically its lipid envelope covering, makes its behavior unpredictable in different aqueous situations. Though the information on COVID-19 environmental persistence is limited, from previous research it should be noted that other coronaviruses have known to survive in viable sewage for around 14 days. 

Should wastewater treatment plant operators take extra precautions? YES, BE SAFE!

The authors further added that there is a good possibility for the virus to aerosolize, particularly during the pumping and transfer of wastewater through different sewer systems. This could lead to atmospheric loading of the virus in the form of water droplets, giving it direct access to the respiratory tract of the people exposed. It must be acknowledged that people working at the sewage pumping stations or wastewater treatments are more at risk and need to be provided protective equipment. They must also be educated to seek medical care when showing any signs or symptoms. 

Areas with open sewage systems, especially in developing countries and places where safely managed sanitation systems are limited are high at risk. The authors further added that “Such settings are commonly accompanied by poorly resourced and fragile healthcare systems, thus amplifying both exposure risk and potential mortality,” 

Is this finding a possible breakthrough? MAYBE, MAYBE NOT.

The authors stated that “It is not yet known whether the virus can be transmitted via the fecal-oral route, however, we know that viral shedding from the digestive system can last longer than shedding from the respiratory tract. Therefore, this could be important – but as yet unquantified – a pathway for increased exposure.”

As the limited number of adequate testing in many places has made it difficult to keep pace with the quick-spreading virus, scientists believe that monitoring sewage for the virus will provide a cheap and reliable alternative. The experts further added that this removes the guesswork about when to impose local lockdowns — or when to lift them.

Though an interesting way to keep track of the virus, monitoring wastewater for the said virus is hardly an easy task. The approach poses many challenges, including deploying it on a large scale and winning the government’s approval. 

The authors concluded the paper by stating that In the immediate future, there needs to be an investment of resources to improve our understanding of the risks associated with the fecal transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and whether this respiratory virus can be disseminated by enteric transmission.