Photo of SARS-CoV-2 wastewater samples.
Wastewater analysis provides information about COVID-19 patterns in communities.
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Discrete Water Analyzers Can Track SARS-CoV-2 Levels in Communities

Wastewater analysis offers crucial information to support COVID-19 monitoring

Apr 13, 2022
Reg Godwin,Gary He

Photo portrait of Reg Godwin and Gary He
Gary He and Reg Godwin (right)

Reg Godwin, technical specialist, National Laboratory Service, Environment Agency UK, has 14 years of experience in environmental and analytical sciences in commercial and public sector settings. Since the emergence of the global pandemic, he has focused on setting up a wastewater testing facility to provide the government with essential data and a national early warning system for SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks.

Currently serving as the product marketing manager for the Gallery Discrete Industrial Analyzers within Thermo Fisher Scientific, Gary leads the product and marketing programs to drive sustainable technology adoption in applications such as soil analysis, drinking water analysis, sewage water and wastewater analysis.

One person’s waste is another’s treasure.

The COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing, and new, effective surveillance methods are essential to manage the virus. Wastewater analysis provides information about COVID-19 patterns in communities. For example, SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA levels in wastewater can indicate infection levels in an area, including in places where asymptomatic infections are high. 

As well as monitoring current COVID-19 infection levels, fluctuations in detected SARS-CoV-2 levels over time can indicate how effective preventive measures are at tackling the virus. This crucial information shapes innovative strategies to solve the COVID-19 crisis, and wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) programs are indispensable in this fight. So, what methods are available for wastewater analysis?

Challenges of traditional water testing methods

The first barrier is knowing what indicators are useful for SARS-CoV-2 monitoring. Viral loads in wastewater are significant and can be detected by quantitative reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-qPCR). Insight gathered from other biomarkers, including ammonia, pH, and elements such as phosphorus and nitrogen complete the picture for WBE programs. 

Examining these biomarkers, among others, can highlight distinctive patterns correlating with population fluctuation activities, such as holidays or commuting. Wastewater sample composition is also strongly linked to other variables including rainfall and population input, requiring correction for factors such as flow and dilution when quantifying SARS-CoV-2 levels. Dry weather sampling data can create a “baseline” for the sample point in wastewater monitoring. 

Unfortunately, a complication of SARS-CoV-2 detection is virus stability. Coronaviruses in aqueous solution are sensitive to temperature, concentration of suspended solids, and pH. Therefore, any measurement techniques need to consider these aspects. 

Traditionally, multiple wet chemical analyses of biomarkers are most used for water testing. However, the process can be time-consuming: each test needs a separate sample and, often, multiple sequential steps. It can also be labor-intensive and costly as specialist staff are needed to run and monitor the equipment. For sustainable analytical processes, new techniques are essential.

Automation accelerates analysis

Automation can be the answer. Consolidated multiparameter discrete analyzers, for example, allow high-throughput wet chemical analysis—removing laborious sequential step processes and speeding up the analysis. With up to 20 parameters tested simultaneously, you only require one instrument and one operator, significantly reducing hands-on time. 

The technique uses colorimetric and enzymatic measurements of several analytes at once—requiring only one sample, preparation errors are reduced and fewer reagents are used. Additionally, discrete analyzers simultaneously obtain electrochemical measurements, such as pH, which directly influences the virus stability. Combined, these factors lead to a time-efficient process, with improved analytical efficiency thanks to the automated features. 

Closing the doors on COVID-19

While wastewater analysis offers crucial information to support COVID-19 monitoring, analytical techniques need to embrace automation to increase analytical efficiency and simplify wet chemical analysis. Discrete analyzers can overcome existing financial and labor challenges, offering rapid multiple analysis of samples with reduced time and staff input. Streamlining analytical procedures cements the utility of WBE programs in addressing COVID-19, and provides health officials and governments with the tools for overcoming future pandemics.