KWR detects COVID-19 in sewage water

KWR Watercycle Research Institute enables the water sector to use water in a healthy, sustainable and efficient way through research, knowledge and innovation. The scientific findings and the practical innovations that result from them contribute worldwide to a sustainable availability of water in the urban water cycle. One of the studies focuses on the traces of SARS-CoV-2 in waste water. This gives KWR an overview of locations with concentrations of contamination. These results are literally mapped on a dashboard using Esri technology.

At the beginning of 2021, KWR showed that there is a correlation between genetic traces of SARS-CoV-2 in sewage and Covid-19 infection in the population. KWR researchers showed that these traces are four to seven days ahead of data on confirmed cases of Covid-19 infection. Continuous monitoring of the sewage water can thus provide early warnings about SARS-CoV-2 infections among the local population.

Mirror of society

Although most corona measures have been scaled down, the pandemic is not over and it is important to continue monitoring for future outbreaks of this or other viruses. Especially now that people’s willingness to test has decreased, monitoring of sewage water is becoming more important. Bernard Raterman, GIS specialist at KWR: “The sewer is the mirror of society. Sewage surveillance has always been effective, but is now becoming even more relevant. Simply put: everyone goes to the toilet, not everyone goes to the test street. Because fewer and fewer people are going to the test street, we are losing sight of the virus. Sewage surveillance can continue to monitor the virus and warn early if it flares up again.”

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While RIVM monitors the spread of Covid at a national level, KWR does this at a local level in collaboration with the Erasmus Medical Center. This is accurate to the ‘postal code 6’ level, so detailed to the four numbers and two letters. Gertjan Medema, principal microbiologist at KWR: “We can examine in detail the distribution of different SARS-CoV-2 variants. Our research gives numbers; only when we look at trends does that provide information. When we compare this with other data and classify it per region, you will gain valuable insights. We do have the data; the dashboards mainly help in communicating the information we get from that data.”

Placing data layers on a map

Using Esri’s ArcGIS mapping technology, all kinds of data layers can be superimposed on a map. In this way, KWR can work exploratively and, for example, include socio-economic factors in the research. In this way, KWR discovered that there were relatively many traces of SARS-CoV-2 in a certain Rotterdam district, but the number of tests in that district was significantly lower than you would expect with such concentrations in the sewer. Based on that information, the GGD has deployed mobile information and test points in that neighbourhood.

Medema: “We are able to identify Covid, but also other infectious diseases, at an early stage. If you catch it on time, it helps a lot in containing outbreaks, and often the smallest details matter and can make a difference.”

Sharing knowledge internationally

The infrastructure that KWR has set up and the knowledge gained from mapping the data has aroused international interest. The European Union has asked its Member States to get started and to share knowledge and results. KWR has already served several international companies with research into groundwater and surface water and water purification, but now also helps various countries with setting up sewer surveillance and dashboards to make the information visual. This makes information more transparent, easier to convert into action and easier to share.

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Raterman: “By mapping out the information and creating dashboards, it is easier to discover patterns. For example, we compare data from PCR tests with sewer data. In combination with the location data, this provides insight into the virus circulation on a geographical basis. That is globally relevant. We notice that we are leading the way with our GIS application; in other countries they are not always that far, so they look over our shoulder or we help them concretely. For example, we currently support organizations in Nairobi in developing the dashboards.”

Collect data across national borders

The advantage of this international cooperation is that data can also be collected across national borders. Medema: “A pandemic is simply worldwide. We hope that by collecting and combining international data, we can increasingly protect ourselves against these types of outbreaks.”

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