Computational analysis of SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 surveillance by wastewater-based epidemiology locally and globally: Feasibility, economy, opportunities and challenges

Olga E. Hart, Rolf U. Halden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

338 Scopus citations


With the economic and practical limits of medical screening for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 coming sharply into focus worldwide, scientists are turning now to wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) as a potential tool for assessing and managing the pandemic. We employed computational analysis and modeling to examine the feasibility, economy, opportunities and challenges of enumerating active coronavirus infections locally and globally using WBE. Depending on local conditions, detection in community wastewater of one symptomatic/asymptomatic infected case per 100 to 2,000,000 non-infected people is theoretically feasible, with some practical successes now being reported from around the world. Computer simulations for past, present and emerging epidemic hotspots (e.g., Wuhan, Milan, Madrid, New York City, Teheran, Seattle, Detroit and New Orleans) identified temperature, average in-sewer travel time and per-capita water use as key variables. WBE surveillance of populations is shown to be orders of magnitude cheaper and faster than clinical screening, yet cannot fully replace it. Cost savings worldwide for one-time national surveillance campaigns are estimated to be in the million to billion US dollar range (US$), depending on a nation's population size and number of testing rounds conducted. For resource poor regions and nations, WBE may represent the only viable means of effective surveillance. Important limitations of WBE rest with its inability to identify individuals and to pinpoint their specific locations. Not compensating for temperature effects renders WBE data vulnerable to severe under-/over-estimation of infected cases. Effective surveillance may be envisioned as a two-step process in which WBE serves to identify and enumerate infected cases, where after clinical testing then serves to identify infected individuals in WBE-revealed hotspots. Data provided here demonstrate this approach to save money, be broadly applicable worldwide, and potentially aid in precision management of the pandemic, thereby helping to accelerate the global economic recovery that billions of people rely upon for their livelihoods.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number138875
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Aug 15 2020


  • Coronavirus
  • Global health
  • Modeling
  • Wastewater-based epidemiology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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