The disease COVID-19 is caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2 which can be detected in faeces. Current detection methods rely largely on molecular techniques to identify  unique genetic material for the virus, SARS-CoV-2 . Genetic material can be detected in both viable (“living”) and non-viable or inactivated (“killed”) viruses so its detection does not mean the individual is necessarily infected or that the faeces is infectious.

It is possible to detect viruses using culture-based techniques, which provide information on the viability of the virus, but  these methods are more difficult, particularly for SARS-CoV-2, and time-consuming than most molecular techniques, which is why they are less frequently used.

Research is underway to develop and test methods for surveillance of genetic material from SARS-CoV-2 in sewage.  The approach can potentially be used to estimate prevalence at community level and identify hotspots where testing is low, potentially predict a second wave of infection, or eventually to monitor uptake of vaccines.  The approach is not ready for deployment at scale and is not an alternative to testing in humans.

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Editor's note

Author: Jackie KneeReview: Tom Heath, Robert Dreibelbis, Oliver Cumming, Karin Gallandat, Kate Medlicott
Last update: 01.05.2020

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