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Original article

Vol. 152 No. 2526 (2022)

Wastewater monitoring of SARS-CoV-2 shows high correlation with COVID-19 case numbers and allowed early detection of the first confirmed B.1.1.529 infection in Switzerland: results of an observational surveillance study

  • Claudia Bagutti
  • Monica Alt Hug
  • Philippe Heim
  • Laura Maurer Pekerman
  • Evelyn Ilg Hampe
  • Philipp Hübner
  • Simon Fuchs
  • Miodrag Savic
  • Tanja Stadler
  • Ivan Topolsky
  • Pelin Icer Baykal
  • David Dreifuss
  • Niko Beerenwinkel
  • Sarah Tschudin Sutter
Cite this as:
Swiss Med Wkly. 2022;152:w30202


AIMS OF THE STUDY: Wastewater-based epidemiology has contributed significantly to the comprehension of the dynamics of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Its additional value in monitoring SARS-CoV-2 circulation in the population and identifying newly arising variants independently of diagnostic testing is now undisputed. As a proof of concept, we report here correlations between SARS-CoV-2 detection in wastewater and the officially recorded COVID-19 case numbers, as well as the validity of such surveillance to detect emerging variants, exemplified by the detection of the B.1.1.529 variant Omicron in Basel, Switzerland.

METHODS: From July 1 to December 31, 2021, wastewater samples were collected six times a week from the inflow of the local wastewater treatment plant that receives wastewater from the catchment area of the city of Basel, Switzerland, comprising 273,075 inhabitants. The number of SARS-CoV-2 RNA copies was determined by reverse transcriptase-quantitative PCR. Spearman’s rank correlation coefficients were calculated to determine correlations with the median seven-day incidence of genome copies per litre of wastewater and official case data. To explore delayed correlation effects between the seven-day median number of genome copies/litre wastewater and the median seven-day incidence of SARS-CoV-2 cases, time-lagged Spearman’s rank correlation coefficients were calculated for up to 14 days. RNA extracts from daily wastewater samples were used to genotype circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants by next-generation sequencing.

RESULTS: The number of daily cases and the median seven-day incidence of SARS-CoV-2 infections in the catchment area showed a high correlation with SARS-CoV-2 measurements in wastewater samples. All correlations between the seven-day median number of genome copies/litre wastewater and the time-lagged median seven-day incidence of SARS-CoV-2 cases were significant (p<0.001) for the investigated lag of up to 14 days. Correlation coefficients declined constantly from the maximum of 0.9395 on day 1 to the minimum of 0.8016 on day 14. The B.1.1.529 variant Omicron was detected in wastewater samples collected on November 21, 2021, before its official acknowledgement in a clinical sample by health authorities.

CONCLUSIONS: In this proof-of-concept study, wastewater-based epidemiology proved a reliable and sensitive surveillance approach, complementing routine clinical testing for mapping COVID-19 pandemic dynamics and observing newly circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants.


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