Following successful pilot testing in Budapest, Hungary is launching regular coronavirus testing of wastewater to help authorities stay ahead of the next potential outbreak.
Specialists of the National Public Health Center (NNK) have found traces of coronavirus RNA in the Budapest wastewater, Márta Vargha, water quality expert at the NNK told Origo.
“We have tested samples from the capital’s wastewater in which we have found the genetic material [RNA] of the new SARS-CoV2 virus,” Vargha said, adding that neither the wastewater nor the treated wastewater released in the rivers can spread the infection.
“International experience indicates that wastewater has no coronavirus particles capable of infection, as the virus is susceptible to external conditions and a variety of chemicals, but the RNA — being more stable than the virus as a whole organism — can survive longer in wastewater.”
Given that it cannot spread the disease, the presence of the virus’ genetic material is in fact good news, Vargha said, because it will make its way into the wastewater for a substantial amount of time before new cases will rise.
“Wastewater can be regarded as a sample given by a huge number of people, given how it contains the samples every person living in a given area,” Vargha said. “This is in effect a community screening program. There is also scientific evidence that the quantity of genetic material in wastewater will rise before the appearance of new infections. This means that by analyzing wastewater, we can predict a week or two in advance any rise in the number of infections.”
She added that this early warning system will give the healthcare system much needed notice to gear up for any subsequent spike in the number of coronavirus cases, practically meaning that it would be the first indicator of a second wave of the pandemic. After Budapest, the testing will be extended to the whole country in the coming weeks.
Initially, authorities will conduct weekly sampling, but this testing could increase or fall in frequency as required, Vargha said.
According to the latest official data, Hungary has so far registered 4,102 coronavirus cases and 572 casualties, while the number of both new cases and deaths steadily declining since mid-April.
Title image: The south Pest wastewater treatment plant. (source: fcsm.hu)