Karlsruhe Institute of Technology: Nationwide pilot project for corona detection in wastewater

Corona viruses can already be detected in the wastewater several days before the first symptoms of the disease appear. This offers the opportunity to collect the number of cases more quickly, to map the infection process more precisely and to identify new COVID-19 variants and their spread earlier. The project group “Systematic Monitoring of SARS-CoV-2 in Wastewater” coordinated at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) wants to leverage this potential and examine whether and, if so, how a wastewater-based COVID-19 early warning system can be implemented in Germany. The European Union is funding the project with around 3.7 million euros.

“This interdepartmental research project offers the opportunity to bundle scientific know-how and previous experience in wastewater monitoring throughout Germany and to use it systematically to contain the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr. Verena Höckele, project coordinator at the Karlsruhe Project Management Agency (PTKA) at KIT.

20 locations across Germany are successively entering the pilot project, which started in February and will run for a year. Here, mixed water samples are taken from the inflow of the sewage treatment plants twice a week and over a period of 24 hours, processed and analyzed using a PCR test. The results should then be linked to the pandemic data from the local health authorities and, if possible, included in the pandemic assessment.

Identify virus variants faster with wastewater monitoring

“The method of determining the frequency and dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 viruses via municipal wastewater has already been successfully tested in Germany in the course of individual research projects,” says Professor Harald Horn, head of the water chemistry and water technology department at Engler-Bunte- Institute of the KIT. Horn is convinced that it can not only help to better estimate the number of unreported cases of infected people, but also to detect the spread of variants and mutations more quickly than is possible by testing individual people.

In the project, the researchers now want to analyze on the basis of comparable results which methods could be suitable for comprehensive monitoring and which data must be collected for this in order to be able to detect coronaviruses in wastewater with a complex composition. This can currently be seen in the detection of the omicron variant, the virus fragments of which are mainly excreted via the upper respiratory tract and, compared to the delta variant, only a third end up in the wastewater. A particular challenge for the scientists is therefore to further improve the quality of sampling, laboratory analysis and data evaluation.

At the end of the pilot phase, the decision is made as to whether nationwide wastewater monitoring or more representative monitoring should be recommended for Germany. Such a comprehensive early warning system against COVID-19, which would also be suitable for other pathogens such as polio or flu viruses, is already in use in the Netherlands, Canada and Australia.

ESI-CorA: funding and project partners

The European Union is funding the “Systematic Monitoring of SARS-CoV-2 in Wastewater” (ESI-CorA) project
as part of the ESI (Emergency Support Instrument) with around 3.7 million euros. It was initiated by the Federal Ministry of Health, the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The Project Management Agency Karlsruhe (PTKA) at KIT coordinates the project. Partners include KIT, the Technical University of Darmstadt, the Federal Environment Agency, and the Robert Koch Institute. After the end of the pilot project in February 2023, a steering committee made up of representatives from the federal government, the federal states and associations will decide whether to continue the results.

As “The Research University in the Helmholtz Association”, KIT creates and imparts knowledge for society and the environment. The aim is to make significant contributions to global challenges in the fields of energy, mobility and information. To this end, around 9,600 employees work together on a broad disciplinary basis in natural sciences, engineering, economics, humanities and social sciences. KIT prepares its 23,300 students for responsible tasks in society, business, and science through research-oriented university studies. The innovation activity at KIT bridges the gap between knowledge and application for social benefit, economic prosperity and the preservation of our natural foundations of life.

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