PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Wastewater could help detect coronavirus outbreaks.

“Sewer water has a story to tell about the health of communities. As people use the bathroom, they, in fact, are excreting information,” says Peter Grevatt, CEO of the Water Research Foundation.

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Wastewater has provided information about drugs, diseases and now coronavirus.

“You would pull out whatever solid material you can that’s mixed in with the water. You can use well-established kits to pull out the nucleic acids. In this case, the relevant part is the RNA for the virus,” says Joe Moore, who teaches civil and environmental engineering​ at Carnegie Mellon University and is an ORISE Fellow at the National ​Energy Technology Laboratory​.

This genetic fingerprint is very sensitive.

“They’ve been able to be used to identify as few as 1 to 3 cases per 100,000 population,” says Grevatt.

In Europe, these surveillance programs have been predictive.

“They saw the signal in the sewer water a full week before the first clinical case was diagnosed in a community,” Grevatt says.

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This kind of advanced warning can be critical to taking timely public health action.

By the time cases show up, it is too late.

“Because on an exponential growth curve, there are many more cases that are about to come,” Grevatt said.

Water utilities in Virginia and Oregon have started testing samples. And pilot programs are starting in California, Utah and Maryland.

ALCOSAN did not return comment about whether this kind of testing is happening here.

“What might be even more informative, is if we could look into sampling within different areas of Pittsburgh to get a better sense of where there might be hotspots,” Moore says.

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“We think these approaches have great potential to add to the information from a clinical test. They are not a substitute for clinical tests, but they give additional information,” says Grevatt.