Coronavirus Traces Found in March 2019 Sewage Sample: Spanish Study

James Marshall
June 30, 2020

Spanish virologists believe they may have found traces of COVID-19 in a sample of waste water collected in Barcelona in March of a year ago.

The University of Barcelona team, who had been testing wastewater since mid-April this year to identify potential new outbreaks, chose to also run tests on older samples.

Italian scientists have also said they found COVID-19 genetic material present in sewage months before the virus turned northern Italy into the global COVID-19 hotspot. The study was flawed, they said, and other lines of evidence strongly suggest that the virus developed late past year in China. Only a sample from March 2019 tested positive for COVID-19. They first found traces of the virus in a sample from January 15, 2020, after which they ran the tests of the samples taken between January 2018 and December 2019.

"The levels of the SARS-CoV-2 (or novel coronavirus) genome coincided with the evolution of COVID-19 cases in the population", Albert Bosch, professor at the Faculty of Biology of the University of Barcelona and coordinator of the study, said.

Spain has been one of the countries hardest-hit by the virus, with more than 28,000 deaths, and had one of the world's strictest lockdowns as residents were kept inside apart from trips for food, medicines and essential jobs.

The study was led by researchers from the Enteric Virus Laboratory of the University of Barcelona in collaboration with the public-private company Aigues de Barcelona, which is responsible for managing the water cycle in Barcelona's metropolitan area, they said.

Despite there being the potential for a false positive, because of the virus's similarities with other respiratory infections, Dr Villalbi said the finding was "definitely interesting, it's suggestive".

Bosch, who is president of the Spanish Society of Virologists, said that an early detection even in January could have improved the response to the pandemic.

Prof. Gertjan Medema of the KWR Water Research Institute in the Netherlands, whose team began using a coronavirus test on waste water in February, suggested the Barcelona group needs to repeat the tests to confirm it is really the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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