Israel this week took another step toward creating an early warning system for coronavirus, announcing an agreement between Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Health Ministry to monitor and detect traces of COVID-19 in sewage samples from 14 communities across the country.
"We can give a warning of at least two weeks before an outbreak if virus levels among the population are low,” says principal investigator Prof. Ariel Kushmaro of the Department of Biotechnology Engineering.
"We can observe virus levels increasing in wastewater about two weeks before an outbreak."
The Health Ministry-funded pilot study is expected to last several months and follows a similar program that took place in Ashkelon in May, which successfully predicted an outbreak several weeks ahead of time.
The 14 communities are Be'er Sheva, Beit Shemesh, Binyamina, Elad, Jerusalem, Kfar Saba, Lehavim, Ness Ziona, Netanya, Pardesiya, Rahat, Ramat Hasharon, Ramat Yishai and Tira.
According to Kushmaro, sewage systems can demonstrate the efficacy of a lockdown as the presence of the virus in sewer water continues to decline.
Ben-Gurion University researchers, along with research partner Prof. Eran Friedler from Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, are collaborating with Israeli tech companies NUFiltration and Kando.
NUFiltration supplies a filtration device that detects concentrations of coronavirus in wastewater, and Kando installs sensors in sewage manhole networks to locate COVID-19 hotspots.
Speaking from Italy, NUFiltration founder and CEO Mino Negrin says that his company patented the water filtration technology for sterilizing and reusing dialysis devices – a technology he deemed to be the best in the world due to its similarity to the function of the kidneys.
“We detect genetic material from the coronavirus in wastewater by putting it through a filter,” Negrin says. “The filter will retain all of the genetic material in the wastewater.”
He approached Kushmaro to ask if NUFiltration could help him with testing.
For the last nine years, Kando has been monitoring wastewater networks in Israel and around the world, mainly looking for sources of industrial pollution.
Then the novel coronavirus hit.
“When the pandemic started, we pivoted our technology and started dealing with COVID as well,” says Yaniv Shoshan, vice president of product at Kando.
Shoshan says that the aim of the technology is to detect a community's smallest area with the highest concentration of infections, so health authorities can crack down on potential virus hot spots.
The firm can pinpoint coronavirus clusters all the way down to individual streets, Shoshan said, allowing officials to test the local population person by person.
According to Shoshan, Kando's system can detect traces of COVID-19 RNA, which patients begin shedding a week or two before developing symptoms, and allow health authorities to act quickly to prevent an outbreak.
“At the end of the day, you also want to save the economy. If you stop [the virus’ spread] faster, you can avoid lockdowns,” Shoshan says.
Article written by Joshua Robbin Marks. Reprinted with permission from The Media Line