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Corona numbers: Wastewater monitoring is more accurate and cheaper

However, the project manager in Jena does not yet want to give any figures as to how much higher the actual coronavirus load is based on the wastewater data above the official RKI figures. The data collection, evaluation and interpretation is still ongoing.

Why did the systematic monitoring take so long?

Scientifically reliable data collection on the corona pandemic is methodologically complex, requires research capacities and also costs money. There are already individual municipal initiatives in Germany on coronavirus residues in wastewater in cooperation with wastewater associations, universities, institutes and analysis companies, the projects are funded by the EU, the federal government or the federal states. The need for coordination is correspondingly high, there are lengthy tendering procedures and bureaucratic hurdles.

Jena project manager Trommer explains to MDR AKTUELL that the pilot project (ESI-CorA) for wastewater monitoring in 20 German municipalities is being funded by the EU. A federal-state-association committee steers the project. Four federal ministries are involved, state representatives from the areas of health and waste water, the association of municipal companies and the German Association of Cities. The central coordination lies with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

But implementation across the board is stalling, and there are also financing issues. Wastewater fees are earmarked, the sampling and analysis may not be financed through the wastewater fees. The German Association for Water Management, Wastewater and Waste (DWA) therefore called on the federal government before autumn/winter to clarify the financing.

More than two years of research on wastewater monitoring at the UFZ in Leipzig

Pathogens in wastewater have been analyzed at the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in Leipzig (UFZ) since 2020. The Free State is funding the research project until the end of 2022. The virologist René Kallies describes MDR AKTUELL how, after reports from the Netherlands on the detection of traces of corona viruses in sewage sludge, research at the UFZ was set up – with the TU Dresden as a partner. Initially, you first had to convince politicians of the benefits of wastewater monitoring. Understandably, other priorities were set at the peak of the pandemic. A methodology had to be developed and validated, and the technical processes had to be organised.

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Then there was initially little data during the lockdown in April. With the containment of the pandemic, hardly any traces of Sars-CoV2 were found in the wastewater. By the autumn, however, a dynamic had developed and it had been shown that it worked. According to Kallies, the methodology for measuring the number of infections via wastewater is now mature, but could still be refined. Commercialization also speaks for the validity of the data, many laboratories and service providers are active in this area.

Modelers from the UFZ and the TU Dresden relate the results of the PCR tests in the wastewater to the figures from the Robert Koch Institute. According to the TU, these model calculations are probably the greatest challenge, because parameters such as the quantity and excretion of the viruses by the inhabitants of the sewage treatment plant catchment area vary greatly. Drought or heavy rain also influenced the viral load in the wastewater.

Wastewater tests are relatively inexpensive

The DWA promotes tracking the pandemic via the wastewater path. The EU and Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach are also calling for monitoring to be expanded.

The DWA also argues with a cost advantage. In the federal pilot study, which runs until March 2023, 60,000 euros per sewage treatment plant are set for a whole year. If only the wastewater from the 235 largest sewage treatment plants in Germany were examined for corona viruses, half of the total population would be covered. The costs would be around 14 million euros per year.

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