Early warning systems are vital in preventing surging waves of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Researchers have used wastewater samples to detect the spread of the virus in the United Arab Emirates from municipal and commercial aircraft, the first of its kind in the country, and the largest to date. The research paper is available to be read online from Science Direct.
The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the causative agent for COVID-19, has spread across more than 114 countries worldwide. Researchers in the United States, France, and other countries have been able to identify the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in stool samples and wastewater during the first wave of the pandemic. The levels detected in these studies correlated well with rates of coronavirus spread amongst the respective regions – specifically, SARS-CoV-2 rates in wastewater systems tend to be one-week indicators of hospital admissions and positive COVID-19 test submissions.
Several of these researchers have argued that the implementation of respective surveys of wastewater could act as a cheaper, alternative method to measuring a nation’s rate of coronavirus frequency.
In this study, Rashed Alghafri and colleagues executed the first such study in the United Arab Emirates and the most comprehensive study to date. Between April and July of 2020, the team sampled 2,940 wastewater samples from municipal buildings across the United Arab Emirates’ 49 regions and collected 198 wastewater samples from commercial airlines. The researchers found that SARS-CoV-2 had a significant trace presence in fecal samples and that fluctuating rates of the virus’s presence in wastewater samples corresponded well with reported incidences of COVID-19 amongst the general population.
This has several implications. Principally, it raises concern for the quality of wastewater that re-enters rivers and lakes. If the virus can survive the typical sewage treatment procedures, it could potentially be recirculated into communities that use those water sources for recreational or supply purposes. Fortunately, little evidence exists for this being of concern – the researchers tested three samples of treated wastewater and found no evidence of SARS-CoV-2 remnants.
This does have a wider application for COVID-19 detection. The authors of this study corroborate the findings of other researchers: wastewater sampling can be applied to determine fluctuations of SARS-CoV-2 infections in a more cost-effective way than nasal swabs. Moreover, they could be used to minimize the rate of infected travelers entering a country. When applied to airplane flight waste, as was done in this study, if SARS-CoV-2 rates are detected in significant volumes in flights originating from certain countries, a governing body can use this evidence to terminate flight paths and prevent the spread of the virus from entering a country.
The researchers encourage further discussion of these findings between scientists and policymakers, as the implementation of such early warning systems could have a dramatic effect on the spread of the pandemic, and indeed future spreads of other diseases.