Some scientists are using sewage to measure the prevalence of coronavirus in their communities

This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Groups of scientists around the world are using wastewater testing as a non-invasive way to measure the prevalence of coronavirus in their communities.

(CNN)As the need for widespread Covid-19 testing grows, officials are looking to flush out hidden cases of the virus by examining sewage.

Groups of scientists around the world are using wastewater testing as a non-invasive way to measure the prevalence of coronavirus in their communities.
Local governments in the US are also turning to the tests, which detect traces of coronavirus genetic material -- known as RNA -- in fecal matter.
    The data can be used to gain a sense of how many people may have had the virus asymptomatically and are passing it through, in addition to those testing positive because they are outwardly sick, New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer told CNN.
    His county in Delaware has partnered with Biobot -- an MIT-based startup -- to screen wastewater for coronavirus. Biobot is testing sewage in 150 facilities across 30 states, according to a company spokeswoman.
    New Castle County just completed its first week of testing and expects to have results early this week, Meyer said. In its pilot 24-hour test, Biobot estimated there were 15,200 cases of Covid-19 in New Castle County alone. Those results would far outpace the 4,034 estimated number of confirmed cases in the state, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
    "We're confident as we do this weekly, now that we're working with Biobot, that this can give a varying indication of the total number of cases in our county, which is somewhat useful," Meyer said. "We want to identify hotspots, run this at 10 treatment facilities across a county of 560,000 people, and find out with these hotspots where they are and where they're not."
    Meyer said he has spoken with state officials about implementing wastewater testing across the state -- though he said he's been met with some skepticism.
    "I think it's fair there's skepticism, to be honest," Meyer said. "What (Biobot is) doing seems really smart. The science seems sound. There are uncertainties everywhere ... I hope this works and we've got to be skeptical."

    'Early warning system'

    Meanwhile, in the Syracuse area of New York, four professors across three universities have partnered up to test Onondaga County wastewater using a centrifugal process to isolate the virus -- a process they say could significantly speed up detection of Covid-19 outbreaks.
    David Larsen, a public health professor at Syracuse University, told CNN he organized the project after coming across a paper showing that scientists in the Netherlands had successfully performed a wastewater test for Covid-19.
    Larsen said he recruited his colleague Teng Zeng in Syracuse's engineering department to collaborate with wastewater facilities in Onondaga County. Samples were then sent to Hyatt Green and Frank Middleton, both of whom are part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system.
    Middleton, a professor at SUNY Upstate Medical University, said the isolation process they have devised adheres RNA samples of Covid-19 in wastewater to polyethylene glycol, a resin that destroys the active virus and concentrates into a pellet.
    The pellet is then tested through a process known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The PCR is used to detect Covid-19 specifically, as opposed to other viruses that may have found their way into the testing samples, Middleton said.
    He estimated that in the group's academic lab, they could test up to 100 samples a day, though if there were enough samples provided, PCR could perform as many as 1,500 tests daily.
    "This is unlike anything that I've done in the past," Middleton, who serves as the director of the SUNY Molecular Analysis Core, said. "We can do that PCR almost instantaneously, after we have the pellet. About 12 minutes later -- by lab standards, it's almost instantaneous -- (we have the results)."