Published on Jun 23, 2020

  • The coronavirus has been detected in wastewater in some cities in the United States. 
  • However, there's no evidence that you can catch COVID-19 from coming into contact with stool from an infected person.
  • Analysis of wastewater data is being used to  determine spread of COVID-19 in the community and, in some cases,  predicts an emerging hotspot.    

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] JOHN WHYTE: You're watching "Coronavirus in Context." I'm Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. We've had a lot of discussion over the last few weeks about how do we diagnose whether someone has COVID? Or how common is coronavirus in the community? Is analyzing stool and waste one of the ways that we can do this?

To help answer that question, I've asked Dr. Mariana Matus, who is the CEO and founder of Biobot Analytics. Dr. Matus, thanks for joining me.

MARIANA MATUS: Thank you, John, for the invitation. Happy to be here.

JOHN WHYTE: We've heard a lot in the past about finding opioids in sewage, prescription drug residue. But now we're hearing about COVID. Is-- is that right? What's the latest?

MARIANA MATUS: Yeah. So the-- the novel coronavirus is shedding stool of infected individuals--


MARIANA MATUS: --and therefore finds its way into the wastewater infrastructure, where we can then go out, collect wastewater samples, look for the virus and understand how many people, approximately, are infected in that area.

JOHN WHYTE: Now, have you been doing this in-- in certain cities?

MARIANA MATUS: Yes. So, uh, our team was the first one to detect the virus in wastewater in-- back in March in the US. And-- and then after that we opened a pro bono campaign inviting wastewater treatment plants to send samples every week. We ended up analyzing close to 2,000 samples from 400 wastewater treatment plants enrolled into the program representing 42 states and 10% of the US population.

JOHN WHYTE: So is it correlating with antibody studies, with diagnostic tests? How are folks using it from an epidemiologic perspective to understand how prevalent it is in the community?

MARIANA MATUS: That's a great question. When we started, first, we were comparing the estimates from the wastewater with cumulative cases in that community, how many cases have been diagnosed of COVID-19. We found that the wastewater data tended to predict a number higher than the reported clinical cases, which opened basically this-- almost like this mystery of what's happening, because consistently, we are seeing higher numbers as predicted by the wastewater. And further research now has shown that actually the wastewater data better correlates with future cases. It-- it has a little bit of a, uh, lead time into new clinical cases.

JOHN WHYTE: Now, there's no data to suggest that the wastewater is infectious with the virus, is that correct?

MARIANA MATUS: That is correct. And that is very important for everyone to-- to understand and hear about. So far, there's no evidence that the virus that comes out in human stool, in human waste is infectious.

And therefore by extension also, the virus present in the wastewater is-- there-- there's no evidence that it's infectious. There's a-- a proper study going on at the moment, uh, organized by the CDC, so we should hear more about that soon. But so far, all of the evidence points out that the virus is inactive.

JOHN WHYTE: Because we don't want people to think that are watching this that they could, uh, catch coronavirus by coming in-- into contact with stool, either at a public rest room or a friend's bathroom. Is that right? I don't want to misinform anyone.

MARIANA MATUS: Correct. Yes. For now, we should not make assumptions about that. Of course, you know, toilets and wastewater are still something that--

JOHN WHYTE: There's other reasons why we should practice good sanitation.

MARIANA MATUS: Yeah, so-- so we still recommend, you know, obviously wearing proper PPE when-- when handling wastewater and all of that, you know, keeping proper hygiene at home, or even increased hygiene at home. But no, there's no-- no added risk known at the moment.

JOHN WHYTE: But certainly increase hygiene hand washing, cleaning in-- in bathrooms. Um, where do you think we'll be six months from now in looking at, uh, wastewater? Will it be even more prevalent? Will it be-- you know, we'll relying more on antibody testing? Why do you think this isn't being used more right now?

MARIANA MATUS: Well, uh, I think that over the next 12 months or so, we will see huge adoption of the wastewater data together with the other pieces of the puzzle, the other types of, uh, of surveys. But, uh, you know, really our vision is that every-- every city, every state in the country should be looking at wastewater data. Our company has now decided to support this service, you know, over the next--


MARIANA MATUS: --12 to 24 months, because we see a lot of-- a lot-- really, a lot of interest, a lot of demand to have this as an ongoing tool. So I think what's going to happen is more and more people are going to start kind of making dashboards and models that look at the different types of information-- antibody testing, clinical testing, random testing, wastewater data-- and you know, really, like, painting a more holistic picture of what's happening. And not only government and public health officials, we also see a lot of interest from places of work--


MARIANA MATUS: --universities, dorms, nursing homes that want to have an early warning for a new outbreak in their communities.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, thank you for sharing this very interesting information. And we'll be learning more, uh, along with you over the next couple of months. Thank you for taking time today.


JOHN WHYTE: And thank you for watching "Coronavirus in Context." [MUSIC PLAYING]