Ben-Gurion University to look for COVID-19 in wastewater of 14 cities across the country
Imagine if the world knew that there would be a coronavirus outbreak two weeks before it started spreading, how much better-prepared countries could be in dealing with the pandemic.
Israel on Monday took another step toward that sort of early warning system becoming a reality with the announcement of an agreement that Ben-Gurion University of the Negev signed with the Health Ministry to monitor and detect COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in sewage samples from 14 communities across Israel.
“When there is no virus in the population or very low interactivity in the population we can manage to probably give a warning of at least two weeks before an outbreak,” principal investigator Prof. Ariel Kushmaro of the Department of Biotechnology Engineering told The Media Line.
“About two weeks before an outbreak we can see the increase of the virus in the wastewater,” Kushmaro said.
The Health Ministry-funded pilot study is expected to last several months and follows an initial pilot program in Ashkelon in May that successfully predicted an outbreak there several weeks ahead of time.
The 14 communities are Beersheba, Beit Shemesh, Binyamina, Elad, Jerusalem, Kfar Saba, Lehavim, Ness Ziona, Netanya, Pardesiya, Rahat, Ramat Hasharon, Ramat Yishai and Tira.
Currently, we are monitoring the decline of the virus concentration in the sewage because of the lockdown. We had a high concentration of the virus in the population. We saw a very high concentration of the virus in the sewage and now see a decline in the sewage in the different cities and this is due to the lockdown
According to the professor, evidence that the lockdown is working can be found in the sewage systems.
“Currently, we are monitoring the decline of the virus concentration in the sewage because of the lockdown,” Kushmaro said. “We had a high concentration of the virus in the population. We saw a very high concentration of the virus in the sewage and now see a decline in the sewage in the different cities and this is due to the lockdown.”
Ben-Gurion University researchers, along with research partner Prof. Eran Friedler of the Technion’s Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering, are collaborating with two Israeli tech companies: NUFiltration is helping to develop a filtration device to detect concentrations of coronavirus in wastewater, and Kando installs a kit of sensors and smart samples in manholes of sewer networks to identify where the highest concentrations of COVID-19 are located.
Mino Negrin, founder and CEO of NUFiltration, spoke to The Media Line from Italy, explaining that his company patented the water filtration technology for sterilizing and reusing a dialysis device – technology he calls the best in the world because it simulates the best filter in the world: kidneys.
“What permits detection of genetic material from the coronavirus in wastewater is taking wastewater and throwing it through the filter,” Negrin said. “The filter will retain all of the genetic material present in the wastewater, then extract at very high concentrations so inside is only the virus itself.”
He approached Kushmaro to ask if NUFiltration could perform some tests with him.
“Today they use mainly our tech to be able to detect the virus in a very efficient, fast and early way in the wastewater,” Negrin said.
For the last nine years, Kando has been monitoring wastewater networks in Israel and around the world looking for mainly industrial pollution sources.
Then the novel coronavirus hit.
“When the pandemic started we pivoted our technology and started dealing with COVID as well,” Yaniv Shoshan, vice president of product at Kando, told The Media Line.
Shoshan explained that the idea behind their technology is to identify the smallest area of a city with the highest concentration of infected people, so health authorities can test in the area to prevent further spread of the virus.
The firm can even pinpoint a coronavirus cluster all the way down to an individual street, Shoshan continued, allowing officials to check the population person by person.
When people are infected with the coronavirus they start to shed ribonucleic acid (RNA) remains of COVID-19 a week or two before getting sick. Kando can detect these RNA remains in the wastewater network, which, according to Shoshan, allows health authorities to get ahead of the virus instead of waiting for symptoms to begin appearing.
“At the end of the day, you also want to save the economy. If you stop [the virus’ spread] faster, you can avoid lockdowns,” Shoshan said.