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Israeli Company Uses Sewage to Find COVID-19 Hot Spots

While the world waits for vaccines, Kando hopes that by collecting and analyzing sewage samples, it can help government isolate problem areas to more effectively and precisely contain COVID-19.

a section of sewer pipe
Shutterstock/Vladimir Mulder
What happens when a country lacks the ability to thoroughly identify and isolate people who have become infected with the coronavirus, and therefore can’t contain the spread of COVID-19?


But what if, while the world waits for scientists to create vaccines and other treatments, governments could more precisely target lockdowns to only problem areas?

That would require a way to quickly find those problem areas. And the way to do that, as it happens, might be through the sewers.

A company from Israel, Kando, is gearing up to start selling sensors and services to governments around the world to make it happen.

The idea, according to Kando Vice President of Product and Marketing Yaniv Shoshan, is to put hardware into wastewater pipes that will capture samples on their own, then send out people to collect those samples and deliver them to labs where they can be analyzed to find out how much, if any, of the virus is in it.

“We sample the wastewater in the right time and the right place to [get] the best results, and those samples are going to a laboratory which analyzes the amount of [virus],” Shoshan said. “We developed a module that takes all the parameters of the wastewater and the structure of the city, the size of the population and the flow of the water, etc., etc., etc., and it calculates the … size of the infected population upstream of the unit.”

With that information, he said, the company can move its sensors down the pipelines to “zoom in” on more specific areas. Eventually a government could find a neighborhood — perhaps even a single street — where the virus is coming from.

“We call it hot spots, so you can pinpoint a hot spot and then you can intervene with a smaller population size, and like if you are going to do a lockdown, you don’t have to do a lockdown for the full city, but only for a neighborhood or a smaller area,” he said.

For a few months now, the company has been testing out the concept in the pipes below Ashkelon, a city in Israel just north of Gaza, in order to calibrate its models. Shoshan said it will release results from that project soon.

An American company, Biobot Analytics, has been doing similar work since March. In a recent article, the Boston Globe reported that Biobot has now worked with about 400 facilities in 42 different states.

COVID-19 aside, the “classic” work of Biobot and Kando are fairly different. Biobot focused on using sewage for public health concerns, chiefly opioid consumption, while Kando has pointed its sampling toward pollution. Any number of pollutants — oils, fats, salts, fuels, acids — can enter wastewater on its way to treatment plants, which can harm those facilities as well as consumers of wastewater such as agricultural operations.

“If a factory discharges something, a pollutant or materials, into the sewage which are not permitted or which the wastewater treatment plant is not planned to treat, all kind of things can happen,” Shoshan said. “The simplest things are clogs, they can cause overflows in the city, and you can go all the way to corrosion that harms the pipes … you can go to all kinds of upsets for the wastewater treatment plant, so its performance will [be] damaged.”

But the issue of the moment — the year, really — is the coronavirus. And Kando is looking to expand its monitoring program to help contain the virus to as many places as it can.

“Humanity has to have some kind of monitoring which is fast and doesn’t harm privacy,” he said. “This solution doesn’t harm privacy, it doesn’t harm the population’s way of life. We don’t have to approach people and test them personally. It’s something that is constant, under the ground. Nobody sees it, it doesn’t interfere with the city or way of life. So yeah, we are eager to help every city in the world.”

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.
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