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Quantification of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater treatment plants mirrors the pandemic trend in HK

Leo Poon and Hein Min Tun's team from the HKU-Pasteur Research Pole used wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) to analyze the evolution of the Covid-19 pandemic in Hong Kong over the last few months.

This tool has proved to be a relevant and more comprehensive alternative to the regular PCR testing campaigns to try to understand the various issues highlighted through this pandemic.


Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) for the SARS-CoV-2 virus in wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) has emerged as a cost-effective and unbiased tool for population-level testing in the community. In the present study, we conducted a 6-month wastewater monitoring campaign from three WWTPs of different flow rates and catchment area characteristics, which serve 28 % (2.1 million people) of Hong Kong residents in total. Wastewater samples collected daily or every other day were concentrated using ultracentrifugation and the SARS-CoV-2 virus RNA in the supernatant was detected using the N1 and E primer sets. The results showed significant correlations between the virus concentration and the number of daily new cases in corresponding catchment areas of the three WWTPs when using 7-day moving average values (Kendall's tau-b value: 0.227–0.608, p < 0.001).

SARS-CoV-2 virus concentration was normalized to a fecal indicator using PMMoV concentration and daily flow rates, but the normalization did not enhance the correlation. The key factors contributing to the correlation were also evaluated, including the sampling frequency, testing methods, and smoothing days. This study demonstrates the applicability of wastewater surveillance to monitor overall SARS-CoV-2 pandemic dynamics in a densely populated city like Hong Kong, and provides a large-scale longitudinal reference for the establishment of the long-term sentinel surveillance in WWTPs for WBE of pathogens which could be combined into a city-wide public health observatory.


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