"Looking in the sewer is like looking in the mirror of society."
To better track the coronavirus pandemic, scientists are rolling up their sleeves and searching for signs of the virus in wastewater treatment facilities and sewers.
It's dirty work, but scientists say that scanning sewage for the coronavirus could give governments and health departments an early warning of a new outbreak, according to the Chicago Tribune. With pilots programs in the Chicago area as well as Amsterdam and Utrecht in the Netherlands, the initiative could mean more time to prepare for a newwave of COVID-19 infections without overwhelming the healthcare system.
Regular sewer screenings could also let local governments know that their citizens are starting to recover after an outbreak, Peter Grevatt, president of the Water Research Foundation, told Chicago Tribune.
"You won't be able to say precisely how many cases there are in a community, at least at this point," said Grevatt. "But you will be able to see when that signal appears and you'll be able to see if it is changing in terms of an upward trend or a downward trend."
Down the road, scientists hope that they can ascertain even more granular details about a community based on the levels of coronavirus in their wastewater and sewage. By the end of summer, researchers hope to be able to analyze the coronavirus outbreaks in individual neighborhoods or buildings by analyzing their waste.
"Looking in the sewer is like looking in the mirror of society," KWR Water Research Institute principal microbiologist Gertjan Medema told Chicago Tribune.
More on environmental testing: Scientists Find Airborne Coronavirus Floating in Wuhan Hospital