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Wastewater-Based Epidemiology: Sewage Surveillance to Track COVID-19

Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE), or sewershed surveillance, is the analysis of wastewater to identify presence of biologicals or chemicals for the purpose of monitoring public health. WBE has previously been used to detect the presence of pharmaceutical or industrial waste, drugs, viruses and potential emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Recent studies showed that detecting the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in wastewater can be a low-cost solution for tracking COVID-19 outbreaks.

Want to learn more about methods for concentration, extraction and detection of viral RNA in sewershed water? We're here to help!

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Detecting SARS-CoV-2 in Wastewater: An Early Warning System for COVID-19

The earliest report of wastewater surveillance to track COVID-19 was a study by the KWR Water Research Institute in March 2020. They found the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater samples in the Netherlands. The report came within a week after the first case of COVID-19 in the country was confirmed. Since then, there have been numerous examples of using WBE to track COVID-19.

Although WBE cannot identify which individuals have been infected, it has several advantages compared to patient testing.

Learn about the advantages, challenges and opportunities of WBE in this presentation by Sameer Moorji, Director of Applied Markets, Promega Corporation.

Advantages of Wastewater Surveillance


Early Warning

SARS-CoV-2 RNA can be detected in human feces a few days to a week before the onset of symptoms. A study showed that sewage surveillance can predict COVID-19 outbreaks even before individual patient testing and hospital admissions.


Population-Wide Data

One wastewater sample can provide data on the average infection rate of thousands of people. This aggregated data can be especially informative to regions with low clinical COVID-19 testing rates.



Instead of individually testing thousands of patients, collecting and testing a small number of wastewater samples is much more cost-efficient for obtaining population-wide data.


Trending Tool

Continual monitoring of wastewater can be used to establish trends in current outbreaks, identify new outbreaks, and prevalence of infections.

Viral Detection in Wastewater: The Future of Outbreak Prevention

Currently, our response to infectious disease outbreaks depends on the detection of disease after an outbreak has already occurred. By continually monitoring viruses in sewershed water, we can be proactive in identifying potential outbreaks before they occur.


Protocol for Detecting Coronavirus RNA in Wastewater

  1. Sample Collection

    Viral detection in sewage begins by collecting wastewater samples in sewersheds, where water drains into a single point of the sewage system.

  2. Pasteurization

    The collected wastewater samples are pasteurized at 60°C to inactivate any live pathogens.

  3. Virus Concentration

    The virus is concentrated using either a Polyethylene Glycol 8000 precipitation, centrifugal filtration or ultracentrifugation method.

  4. RNA Extraction

    Extraction methods (manual, automated or high throughput) are used to purify viral RNA from the concentrated viral material.

  5. RNA Quantification

    The RNA is quantified to ensure that the appropriate amount and quality of input RNA is used for downstream analysis.


  6. RT-qPCR Amplification

    RNA is reverse transcribed to cDNA and amplified via quantitative PCR using primer sets for either nucleocapsid genes (N1/N2) or envelope genes (E). We provide a convenient SARS-CoV-2 RT-qPCR kit specifically for wastewater.

  7. Data Analysis

    The results are analyzed and compared with ongoing levels of viral load within the areas of collection.

New! SARS-CoV-2 RT-qPCR Kit for Wastewater

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Learn about the collaboration that helped develop the SARS-CoV-2 RT-qPCR Kit, and how the kit is helping campuses monitor COVID-19.

Read Blog

Learn how a graduate student set up wastewater testing for SARS-CoV-2 in the lab using an automated process.

Read Blog

Wastewater Testing Products For COVID-19

Viral RNA Extraction

The following Maxwell® nucleic acid purification kits are recommended for extracting viral RNA from wastewater samples. These kits used with Maxwell® Instruments allow automated viral RNA extraction from wastewater at up to 48 samples per run.

Purification scale-up and automation support

Our Field Support Scientists are available to help you implement or optimize automation of viral RNA extraction methods, regardless of the instrumentation platform used. We’ll help you develop a workflow that meets your specific needs!

Learn More

Amplification of SARS-CoV-2 RNA

PCR reagents, including qPCR and RT-qPCR products, are routinely used to detect and amplify target viral sequences. The SARS-CoV-2 RT-qPCR Kit for Wastewater was developed to detect SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA in wastewater and includes multiple controls for internal amplification and inhibitor assessment.

Have questions about viral RNA detection in wastewater?

We're happy to answer any questions you may have and work with you to support your needs. Submit the information below to request a free consult and we will be in touch with you shortly!

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Presence of SARS-CoV-2 in Sewage

Read the first report of SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA detection in wastewater by the KWR Water Research Institute.

Read Paper

Sewage as Leading Indicator of COVID-19 Outbreaks

Read this study showing how monitoring wastewater can predict COVID-19 outbreaks.

Read Paper

Review of SARS-CoV-2 in Wastewater

This review paper discusses the current state of knowledge and research needs related to SARS-CoV-2 detection in wastewater.

Read Review