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Researchers connect coronavirus to what’s flushed down the toilet

Researchers connect coronavirus to what’s flushed down the toilet

Graduate student Haya Al-Duroobi analyzes wastewater samples for coronavirus.

OCTOBER 8, 2020 — A UTSA research team is finding plenty of evidence that the spread of the novel coronavirus can be tracked using our sewer systems. Vikram Kapoor, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is nearing the end of an eight-month study testing wastewater for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Kapoor’s team has received nearly $160,000 in CARES Act funding through the Health Collaborative and San Antonio Metro Health to work on the project.

The researchers found SARS-CoV-2 RNA in sewage released through feces, bodily fluids and other residues. A study of samples taken from June through August found wastewater levels containing coronavirus that mirror positive COVID-19 cases reported through San Antonio Metro Health during that time period.


“Taking advantage of sewerage systems to collect real-time information could be a promising tool to provide early detection of COVID.”



“The technology is there to monitor SARS-CoV-2 through wastewater-based epidemiology,” said Kapoor. “Taking advantage of sewerage systems to collect real-time information could be a promising tool to provide early detection of COVID.”

In addition to verifying the number of positive COVID-19 cases reported from local health officials, Kapoor says wastewater testing is beneficial for discovering information not found through standard testing methods.

“This noninvasive complementary data is also very useful on providing insight on COVID when a significant portion of the population doesn’t get tested because they’re asymptomatic or have mild symptoms,” said Kapoor.

Kapoor adds that wastewater testing is also effective for early detection when coronavirus may spike again, which health officials are predicting will happen as colder weather sets in.

UTSA is partnering with the San Antonio River Authority to gather weekly samples from its wastewater treatment plants. The samples are delivered to UTSA laboratories for analysis.

“The San Antonio River Authority was contacted by numerous entities to participate and provide samples to study the detection of coronavirus in wastewater,” said Amy Middleton, the agency’s utilities manager. “Due to the already established relationship between both institutions and UTSA’s long-standing reputation for quality research, the decision was made to move forward with this study.”

Partnerships like this are vital for having access to detect potential COVID-19 hot spots in the future. This test can also be used to understand the spread of coronavirus in marginalized communities, where clinical testing can be limited, by gathering the samples from sewerage lines in those communities.


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“This serves as another layer of information public health and government officials have at their disposal to track increases or decreases of COVID levels in a community,” Kapoor said.

UTSA’s wastewater research will conclude in early December. Kapoor and his team will create a report with project results along with lessons learned and recommendations at that time.

The report will be shared with San Antonio Metro Health to assess how wastewater testing for coronavirus could be expanded in 2021.

Bruce Forey



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