Sewage poses potential Covid-19 transmission risk, experts warn

The potential spread of Covid-19 via sewage “must not be neglected” in the battle to protect human health, environmental biologists have warned.

The response to the global pandemic has focused upon preventing person-to-person transmission – but experts at the University of Stirling now believe the virus could also be spread in wastewater.

Earlier this week, it emerged that analysis of sewage in the UK could provide important data on the spread of Covid-19.

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However, Professor Richard Quilliam’s new paper – published today – now warns that the sewerage system itself could pose a transmission risk.

Professor Richard Quilliam.Professor Richard Quilliam.
Professor Richard Quilliam.

Writing in the journal Environment International, Prof Quilliam and colleagues from Stirling’s Faculty of Natural Sciences are calling for “an investment of resources” to investigate their concerns.

Prof Quilliam – who is currently leading a £1.85 million study into the transport of bacteria and viruses in marine environments – said: “We know that Covid-19 is spread through droplets from coughs and sneezes, or via objects or materials that carry infection. However, it has recently been confirmed that the virus can also be found in human faeces – up to 33 days after the patient has tested negative for the respiratory symptoms of Covid-19.

“It is not yet known whether the virus can be transmitted via the faecal-oral route, however, we know that viral shedding from the digestive system can last longer than shedding from the respiratory tract. Therefore, this could be an important – but as yet unquantified – pathway for increased exposure.”

The authors of the peer-reviewed paper presented the example of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002-2003, when SARS-CoV-1 – closely linked to the Covid-19 virus strain (SARS-CoV-2) – was detected in sewage discharged by two hospitals in China.

Prof Quilliam highlights that, as most Covid-19 patients are asymptomatic or experience just mild symptoms and remain at home – not in hospitals, there is significant risk of “widespread” distribution through sewers.

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