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Israeli-led research finds that wastewater with coronaviruses could pose serious threat

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The team, headed by Ben-Gurion University, pointed out that wastewater could actually serve ‘as a canary in a coal mine because it can be monitored to track COVID-19 outbreaks.’

By ILANIT CHERNICK

A worldwide study led by researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has found that wastewater with coronaviruses could pose a serious threat when it comes to the spread of the disease.

The new paper, which was led by a team from the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research in collaboration with 35 international researchers and evaluated recent studies on coronaviruses in wastewater and also looked at other airborne infectious diseases, including SARS and MERS. “The goal is to evaluate potential threats, avenues of research and possible solutions, as well as garner beneficial perspectives for the future,” the researchers said.

According to the lead author of the paper, Dr. Edo Bar-Zeev, “there is ample reason to be concerned about how long coronaviruses survive in wastewater and how it impacts natural water sources.”

He said that they questioned whether wastewater contains enough coronaviruses to infect people.

“The simple truth is that we do not know enough and that needs to be rectified as soon as possible,” Bar-Zeev stressed.

Together with his postdoctoral student, Anne Bogler and other renowned researchers, Bar Zeev said they found indications that sewage leaking into natural watercourses “might lead to infection via airborne spray.” 

The researchers also discovered that treated wastewater used to fill recreational water facilities, like lakes and rivers, “could become sources of contagion,” while fruits and vegetables irrigated with wastewater that is not properly disinfected could also be an indirect infection route.

The research team recommends immediate, new research to determine the level of potential infection, if any, and how long coronaviruses last in various bodies of water and spray.

Bar-Zeev emphasized that “wastewater treatment plants need to upgrade their treatment protocols and in the near future [should] also advance toward tertiary treatment through micro- and ultra-filtration membranes, which successfully remove viruses.”

The team also pointed out that wastewater could actually serve “as a canary in a coal mine because it can be monitored to track COVID-19 outbreaks.” 

Coronaviruses show up first in feces before other symptoms like fevers and coughs begin to develop in otherwise asymptomatic people. 

“Regular monitoring,” they said, “can give authorities advance warning of hot spots.” 

The international team is working together to study the spread of coronaviruses through wastewater with 35 researchers from BGU, several university’s in the US including Yale and Northwestern, as well as academics from France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Italy and China.

Recently, BGU researchers also did a pilot study in Israel’s southern city of Ashkelon, using new methodology “to detect and trace the presence of the virus and calculate its concentration to pinpoint emerging COVID-19 hotspots.” 

The university highlighted that other BGU researchers are also working on developing water nanofiltration technologies.

The international team’s research was recently published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

*Featured Image: A wastewater treatment plant in Israel. (Credit: Mick Harper/Shutterstock)

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