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Sensitivity of wastewater-based epidemiology for detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in a low prevalence setting.

Abstract

To assist public health responses to COVID-19, wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) is being utilised internationally to monitor SARS-CoV-2 infections at the community level. However, questions remain regarding the sensitivity of WBE and its use in low prevalence settings. In this study, we estimated the total number of COVID-19 cases required for detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater. To do this, we leveraged a unique situation where, over a 4-month period, all symptomatic and asymptomatic cases, in a population of approximately 120,000, were precisely known and mainly located in a single managed isolation and quarantine facility (MIQF) building. From 9 July to 6 November 2020, 24-hr composite wastewater samples (n = 113) were collected daily from the sewer outside the MIQF, and from the municipal wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) located 5 km downstream. New daily COVID-19 cases at the MIQF ranged from 0 to 17, and for most of the study period there were no cases outside the MIQF identified. SARS-CoV-2 RNA was detected in 54.0% (61/113) at the WWTP, compared to 95.6% (108/113) at the MIQF. We used logistic regression to estimate the shedding of SARS-CoV-2 RNA into wastewater based on four infectious shedding models. With a total of 5 and 10 COVID-19 infectious cases per 100,000 population (0.005 % and 0.01% prevalence) the predicated probability of SARS-CoV-2 RNA detection at the WWTP was estimated to be 28 and 41%, respectively. When a more realistic proportional shedding model was used, this increased to 58% and 87% for 5 and 10 cases, respectively. In other words, when 10 individuals were actively shedding SARS-CoV-2 RNA in a catchment of 100,000 individuals, there was a high likelihood of detecting viral RNA in wastewater. SARS-CoV-2 RNA detections at the WWTP were associated with increasing COVID-19 cases. Our results show that WBE provides a reliable and sensitive platform for detecting infections at the community scale, even when case prevalence is low, and can be of use as an early warning system for community outbreaks.

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