NEW YORK CITY, NY — Forget swabbing noses for the coronavirus, testing city dweller’s sewage waste could be the next “weapon” in tracking the virus’ spread across New York City, Manhattan President Gale Brewer said this week.
Brewer is calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to bring a tracking method used in the Netherlands to test New York City’s wastewater for the coronavirus, a practice she contends could track the spread of the virus in hundreds of thousands of people at a time.
The recommendation comes after the Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board analyzed the Netherlands’ method and found that it could signal which communities are having a surge in COVID-19 infections even before local hospitals get overwhelmed with cases.
“New York needs a non-invasive early warning system to track novel coronavirus, especially as we stay vigilant and on the lookout for that potential ‘second wave,'” Brewer said. “Testing our sewage should be part of the weapons we use to fight this pandemic.”
The testing method — which would detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in wastewater — can be used to estimate the number of people who are infected with the coronavirus, including those who are asymptomatic, the board said.
It is already being used in some counties in upstate New York and is ready to be scaled statewide, according to scientists who developed their own testing system at Syracuse University, SUNY ESF, and SUNY Upstate
In New York City, the Manhattan Board said the testing can help get an early and accurate understanding of the virus spread that can inform more effective social distancing orders, reopening decisions, and allocation of supplies, beds, and medical personnel.
De Blasio has long said that massive testing will be key to New York City’s ability to recover from the new coronavirus outbreak and eventually reopen, but that so far New York City is not equipped to meet those testing numbers. The city has been producing its own traditional coronavirus testing kits to help meet the demand.
“Wastewater epidemiology can provide a better measure of coronavirus transmission than tracking cases in the health system,” said Syracuse Professor David Larsen, an expert in infectious disease epidemiology. “…This platform provides real-time information on transmission dynamics, instant feedback on social distancing and re-opening society, and over time will be able to forecast hospitalizations with greater accuracy than currently available.”