Researchers are surveilling wastewater in cities and neighborhoods around the world, in hopes that by detecting levels of SARS-CoV-2 (which causes COVID-19) in the poo of the infected, they’ll better be able to see how communities are faring in their fight against the pandemic.
This technological race is led in part by BioBot, a startup that came out of both MIT and Y Combinator, and that just had another $4.2 million in seed funding dropped on them. They have been using their poo-n-pee focused technology to test samples collected from wastewater to garner insights into human health issues such as opioids, but have now shifted to another pressing matter. They are now pivoting their focus to COVID-19, and offering their service pro-bono to facilities and local governments in the USA.
Early studies have shown that SARS-CoV-2 can appear in poo within 3 days of infection, which is much sooner than it takes for severe symptoms to develop.
By testing the wastewater, it could be easier to pinpoint where hotspots for COVID-19 infection are starting to blow up, rather than relying only on testing individual symptomatic cases in a more traditional way.
While this certainly wouldn’t negate the need to testing individuals, it could provide a valuable early warning system that wouldn’t require a swab jammed up everyone’s nose for the heads-up on something bigger going on in the neighborhood.
This type of testing has been used by more than a dozen groups around the world in the past few months, including in Australia, The Netherlands, and New Zealand. It’s likely that it could spread quickly, as while not everyone shows symptoms of the disease, everyone poops.
It all sounds very promising, but there is still much to learn before the data is solid. This includes finding out just how much viral RNA makes its way into the poo of an infected person, and extrapolating that into wastewater measurements.
Perhaps in time, we’ll see drive-thru COVID-19 stool drop-offs set up in cities for those who don’t want to have their brain probed by a Q-Tip.
Image courtesy Kevin Doncaster