A newly launched collaborative research project led by Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI), part of Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), has been able to monitor the municipal wastewater for the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. This national effort is a collaboration with the Public Works Authority (Ashghal), Weill-Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q), Qatar Biomedical Research Institute (QBRI) and Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC). The project forms part of the environmental testing pilot program launched by the Scientific Reference and Research Task Force of the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH), which was established in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to provide scientific evidence to Qatar’s policymakers for data-based decision making.
Infection with SARS-CoV-2 leaves traces of the virus in human waste. Therefore, quantifying the viral material level in wastewater offers a good gauge of the infection’s prevalence among the population. This cheap, non-invasive tool has been shown globally to predict a rise in COVID-19 positive cases in the population before the increase in case numbers begins to show in clinics.
During the pilot phase of the project, Ashghal provided sewage samples from various wastewater treatment plants across Qatar to evaluate if the virus could be monitored. After processing multiple samples at QEERI, the collaborative team measured SARS-CoV-2 levels in the sewage using the quantitative reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction (qRT-PCR) technique, performed at WCM-Q and QBRI.
The concentration of viral RNA, and its variations over time, can be utilized to monitor the presence and changes in disease prevalence in the population, in near-real-time. The relative concentrations of this viral material in sewage should be proportional to the number of infected cases.
Wastewater monitoring is a useful tool that can potentially assist MoPH in determining the lifecycle of the pandemic and in understanding how it spreads. This knowledge can help ascertain and provide a level of assurance in the efficacy of the implemented control measures. In addition, the technique will allow early warning of a resurgence of the virus.
The wastewater monitoring effort will ensure that sewage is regularly analyzed for traces of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. QEERI will employ a modeling approach to estimate the number of symptomatic and asymptomatic cases in the population based on the levels found in wastewater.
“These efforts are now moving from proof of concept, to regular surveillance at the national level. Data collected from eight weeks sampling have indicated a very clear trend that matches the decay in reported clinical cases by MoPH until July 26, 2020. With the ease of restrictions and return to school, our wastewater surveillance program will be very useful in detecting any change in COVID-19 trends. The second phase of the study will involve frequent sampling from wastewater treatment plants and selected catchment areas in Qatar,” said Dr. Khaled Mahmoud, Research Program Director of Water Quality at QEERI and the project lead.
Dr. Marc Vermeersch, Executive Director, QEERI, added: “Our primary objective at QEERI is to support Qatar in any way we can to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. We are proud to lead this collaboration, and we believe that the technical knowledge of our scientists working within QEERI’s laboratories and facilities, combined with the immense expense of our collaborators such as PWA, WCM-Q, QBRI and HMC, can definitely make a tangible difference to how Qatar is dealing with the pandemic.”
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