Skip to main content
Move the World.
Track Coronavirus Infections

Lead Image © Curioso Photography / Adobe Stock

Being able to accurately track coronavirus infections is essential in the fight against COVID-19.

Not only does it let experts know how many people are currently infected, but also where those numbers are increasing or decreasing — information that can inform resource allocation and reveal which response efforts are working and which aren't.

However, many countries, including the U.S., don't have nearly as many test kits as they do potential coronavirus carriers, which makes it impossible for experts in those places to know just how many people have the virus.

That's prompting some researchers to explore a slightly unusual method for tracking coronavirus infections: sewage analysis.

Track Coronavirus Infections

The average person begins experiencing coronavirus symptoms five days after infection. Sometimes, though, symptoms take two weeks to appear, and sometimes they don't appear at all.

That means most people who get tested for the coronavirus have had it for at least five days, while some carriers don't get tested at all because they never feel sick.

"We hope we can detect an uptick in cases with this tool faster than we can through clinical testing."

Alexandria Boehm

However, within just three days of a person being infected, traces of the coronavirus can begin to appear in their feces, whether they experience symptoms or not.

Rather than relying on individuals to get tested for the coronavirus, then, some researchers think health officials should be analyzing sewage for signs that the virus has spread to their area.

There's already evidence that this method could be worthwhile.

In March, a team of Dutch researchers managed to detect traces of the coronavirus in wastewater (a combination of sewage and other water contaminated by human activity) in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, weeks before the city reported its first case of COVID-19.

Now, researchers from the University of Michigan and Stanford University are attempting to not just detect the coronavirus in sewage, but use sewage analysis to track coronavirus infections in an area.

"Our hope is that we can detect an uptick in cases with this tool faster than we can through clinical testing," researcher Alexandria Boehm said in a news release. "We don't know that for sure, but that's the hypothesis."

Stanford's Sewage Analysis

To see if they can track coronavirus infections through sewage, the group is currently collecting samples of wastewater from several water treatment plants near Stanford's California campus.

In the next few weeks, they plan to begin analyzing the samples for traces of the coronavirus's genetic material.

They then aim to use those measurements to estimate the number of coronavirus infections in the region — a daunting task, according to Dan Burgard, a wastewater epidemiology specialist not involved in the study.

"The ability to back calculate from the sewer to the number of people could be difficult," he told Wired. "We don't have a Star Trek tricorder where you hold up a device and it tells you exactly how much material is present."

Still, if the team is successful, the use of sewage analysis to track coronavirus infections could prove to be a valuable weapon against the COVID-19 outbreak — particularly in places with a shortage of testing kits.

"For epidemiologists interested in the prevalence and incidence of COVID-19, our methodology offers an estimate that does not rely on testing every individual, nor is it as prone to measurement bias," researcher Nasa Sinnott-Armstrong said in a news release.

"We could identify areas with rapidly increasing cases as a warning system to the health care system," they added. "Finally, these numbers can help epidemiologists model the trajectory of the pandemic with far less testing burden on our health care system."

Up Next

If you want to understand a problem, talk to the people working on solutions. Join us as we meet the people and explore the ideas on the frontlines of an unprecedented global response.

Public Health
A List of the Coronavirus Symptoms, and When to See a Doctor
what are the coronavirus symptoms
Public Health
A List of the Coronavirus Symptoms, and When to See a Doctor
Here is the latest information on coronavirus symptoms and how to distinguish COVID-19 from allergies, the flu, or a common cold.

Here is the latest information on coronavirus symptoms and how to distinguish COVID-19 from allergies, the flu, or a common cold.

Public Health
New App Uses Location Data to Track the Coronavirus
track the coronavirus
Public Health
New App Uses Location Data to Track the Coronavirus
Researchers from MIT and Harvard have created a smartphone app to track the coronavirus, and it puts a premium on user privacy.

Researchers from MIT and Harvard have created a smartphone app to track the coronavirus, and it puts a premium on user privacy.

Public Health
Contact-Tracing Apps Could Help End Coronavirus Lockdown
Contact-Tracing Apps
Public Health
Contact-Tracing Apps Could Help End Coronavirus Lockdown
A new University of Oxford study found that contact-tracing apps could help bring the coronavirus pandemic to an end without violating citizens' rights.

A new University of Oxford study found that contact-tracing apps could help bring the coronavirus pandemic to an end without violating citizens' rights.

Public Health
First Coronavirus Vaccine Is Ready for Human Testing
coronavirus vaccine
Public Health
First Coronavirus Vaccine Is Ready for Human Testing
The experimental coronavirus vaccine, mRNA-1273, began human testing on March 16, several weeks ahead of expectations.

The experimental coronavirus vaccine, mRNA-1273, began human testing on March 16, several weeks ahead of expectations.

Health
Data Scientists Are Making It Easier to Track COVID-19
Track COVID-19
Health
Data Scientists Are Making It Easier to Track COVID-19
Teams of computer scientists across the globe are working tirelessly to help track COVID-19 through the use of computer modeling and data dissemination.

Teams of computer scientists across the globe are working tirelessly to help track COVID-19 through the use of computer modeling and data dissemination.

Coronavirus
Simple Tips for Choosing a Face Mask That Works
Choosing a Face Mask
Coronavirus
Simple Tips for Choosing a Face Mask That Works
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, face coverings are now mandatory in many states. Here’s what you need to know about choosing a face mask.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, face coverings are now mandatory in many states. Here’s what you need to know about choosing a face mask.

Public Health
Eating Out During the Coronavirus Looks a Little Different Now
Eating out During the Coronavirus
Public Health
Eating Out During the Coronavirus Looks a Little Different Now
Restaurant owners are looking for — and finding — creative ways to convince patrons that eating out during the coronavirus can be safe.

Restaurant owners are looking for — and finding — creative ways to convince patrons that eating out during the coronavirus can be safe.

Public Health
Why Is an Antigen Test a Big Deal for COVID-19?
Antigen Test
Public Health
Why Is an Antigen Test a Big Deal for COVID-19?
The FDA has issued its first emergency use authorization for a COVID-19 antigen test, a new type of test for diagnosing the coronavirus.

The FDA has issued its first emergency use authorization for a COVID-19 antigen test, a new type of test for diagnosing the coronavirus.

Healthcare
New Tool Seeks to Protect Those Reusing Coronavirus Masks
Coronavirus Masks
Healthcare
New Tool Seeks to Protect Those Reusing Coronavirus Masks
A group of researchers launched a website that teaches healthcare workers everything they need to know about reusing coronavirus masks as safely as possible.

A group of researchers launched a website that teaches healthcare workers everything they need to know about reusing coronavirus masks as safely as possible.