Coronaviruses in wastewater as an indicator of the spread of infection


Use wastewater to detect infection

Recent studies show that 20 percent or more of COVID-19 patients excrete Sars-COV-2 via the stool. Dozens of scientists worldwide, including those at the University of Innsbruck, are now working on a wastewater epidemiological test procedure that will help them to make statements about how the number of infections in the catchment area of a wastewater treatment plant changes.

Waste water samples provide conclusions

The big question of the estimated number of people infected with Sars-COV-2 and thus the active spread of the virus is currently occupying various scientific disciplines. A promising way to obtain a comprehensive overview of the spread of the disease is the investigation of wastewater samples. A relevant proportion of infected persons, even those with no or mild symptoms, excrete the virus via the stool, which then enters the wastewater. From the wastewater samples, conclusions about the spread of the infection can be drawn independently of individuals. This wastewater epidemiological approach is now being pursued by the Institute of Microbiology and the Department of Environmental Technology at the University of Innsbruck together with three university spin-offs - BioTreaT, Sinsoma and hydro-IT - and working groups in the Netherlands and the USA. The analysis is based on an adapted PCR method. Cooperation partners from the Netherlands have already been able to detect virus fragments in wastewater using this method. At present, the Innsbruck site is working hard to establish appropriate financing, expand contact with colleagues worldwide and carry out initial sampling and analyses.

Two steps to the result

The Innsbruck scientists are now trying to achieve reliable results as quickly as possible in two steps:

Step 1:

  • Evaluation and adaptation of existing RNA extraction and detection methods.
  • Organisation of the sample collections and securing the samples.

Step 2 (after approval of the research proposal(s)):

  • Quantitative determination of SARS-CoV-2 RNA from wastewater.
  • Establishment of a GIS-based information portal.
  • Creation of a basis for quantifying the extent and dynamics of outbreaks independently of patient tests or hospital reports.

The data generated from wastewater investigations could provide decision support for health authorities who need to determine the timing and severity of public health interventions (contact avoidance, quarantine measures, etc.). The methodology developed should also be used in the future to provide early warning of coronavirus recurrence and help to assess the effectiveness of interventions.

ARA Pustertal among the partners involved

  • BioTreaT is the contact for the wastewater associations and provides the participating institutions with sampling kits and protocols.
  • Wastewater plants collect samples at regular intervals,
    ARA Pustertal AG is also participating with the following plants:
    -ARA water field in Welsberg
    -ARA Tobl in St. Lorenzen
    -ARA Lower Puster Valley in Mühlbach
  • At the Institute of Microbiology the samples are processed and prepared to concentrate and extract viral RNA.
  • For Sinsoma, SARS-CoV-2 is detected by diagnostic PCR.
  • The Institute for Infrastructure (AB Umwelttechnik) and hydro-IT are establishing a data platform to collect the test results and evaluate them on the basis of the sewage network.


Universität Innsbruck: Abwassertests als Corona-Frühwarnsystem

Universität Innsbruck: Coronaviren im Abwasser als Gradmesser der Infektionsverbreitung