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Could your feces hold the secret to coronavirus detection?

The hope: locating new breaks fast by finding the virus in wastewater

photo
(Getty Images)

Believe it or not, our excrement might be one of our best hopes to quickly detect coronavirus outbreaks.

That's because the disease can be detected in feces even before people get coronavirus tests.

German research institutes and some public works like in the city of Leipzig are right in the middle of a massive trial.

The hope: locating new breaks fast by finding the virus in wastewater.

“If it would be possible to have an idea of the concentration of coronavirus in the wastewater, we can calculate the number of, infected people in Leipzig, and this would be very interesting in the coronavirus strategies,” Dr. Ulrich Meyer, technical director at Leipzig Waterworks, said.

Germany is amongst several countries experimenting to see whether sewage could be a COVID-19 early warning system.

"Researchers found out very early on during the pandemic that indeed COVID-19 can be traced in feces, but now the big question is, can that be done on a regular automated basis and can it be done in a large area like for instance, an entire country?" CNN’s Fred Pleitgen said.

The biggest problem: finding even small traces of the virus in a lot of sludge like this.

At the renowned Helmholtz Center for Environmental Studies, Virologist, Rene Kallies is trying to do just that.

Aiming to extract parts of the virus' genome called the RNA from large samples of sewage.

"We have a high volume of waste [sic] and I think it's a challenge to find the traces of the virus in the base models,” Kallies said. “So we have liters and we have to scale it down to microliters to get a sufficient amount for extraction. I think that's a challenge."

If they succeed in the future, sudden spikes of coronavirus in samples from certain sewage plants could tell authorities where new outbreaks are happening and allow them to quickly react, one of the heads of the study said.

“It would be the first test line actually, start with our measurement, and then you would know where to go to look for the reasons,” Professor Hauke Harms, Microbiologist Helmholtz Center for Environmental Studies, said.

With that knowledge, authorities could then initiate targeted testing for those areas to quickly contain outbreaks.

The scientists say their model could be ready for deployment if and when the next wave of the novel coronavirus hits.

“I think, we can offer something before the next wave actually,” Harms said. “So, if the next wave is coming in in fall or early winter also, then we should have something.”

The scientists acknowledge they still have a long and difficult way to go.

But they are confident they might indeed find a way to make feces into a natural coronavirus alarm.

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