Wastewater-based epidemiology in countries with poor wastewater treatment - Epidemiological indicator function of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in surface waters

Stoimir Kolarević, Adrienn Micsinai, Réka Szántó-Egész, Alena Lukács, Margareta Kračun-Kolarević, Ana Djordjevic, Danijela Vojnović-Milutinović, Jovana Jovanović Marić, Alexander K T Kirschner, Andreas A H Farnleitner, Rita Linke, Aleksandar Đukic, Jovana Kostić-Vuković, Momir Paunović

Research output: Journal article (peer-reviewed)Journal article

3 Citations (Scopus)


Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) surveillance of COVID-19 and other future outbreaks is a challenge for developing countries as most households are not connected to a sewerage system. In December 2019, SARS-CoV-2 RNA was detected in the Danube River at a site severely affected by wastewaters from Belgrade. Rivers are much more complex systems than wastewater systems, and efforts are needed to address all the factors influencing the adoption of WBE as an alternative to targeting raw wastewater. Our objective was to provide a more detailed insight into the potential of SARS-CoV-2 surveillance in Serbian surface waters for epidemiological purposes. Water samples were collected at 12 sites along the Sava and Danube rivers in Belgrade during the fourth COVID-19 wave in Serbia that started in late February 2021. RNA was concentrated using Amicon Ultra-15 centrifugal filters and quantified using RT-qPCR with primer sets targeting nucleocapsid (N1 and N2) and envelope (E) protein genes. Microbiological (faecal indicator bacteria and human and animal genetic faecal source tracking markers), epidemiological, physicochemical and hydromorphological parameters were analysed in parallel. From 44 samples, SARS-CoV-2 RNA was detected in 31, but only at 4 concentrations above the level of quantification (ranging from 8.47 × 103 to 2.07 × 104 gc/L). The results indicated that surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in surface waters as ultimate recipients could be used as an epidemiological early-warning tool in countries lacking wastewater treatment and proper sewerage infrastructure. The performance of the applied approach, including advanced sampling site characterization to trace and identify sites with significant raw sewage influence from human populations, could be further improved by adaptation of the methodology for processing higher volumes of samples and enrichment factors, which should provide the quantitative instead of qualitative data needed for WBE.

Original languageEnglish
Article number156964
Pages (from-to)156964
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date25 Jun 2022
Publication statusPublished - 15 Oct 2022


  • COVID-19/epidemiology
  • Humans
  • RNA, Viral
  • SARS-CoV-2/genetics
  • Waste Water
  • Wastewater-Based Epidemiological Monitoring
  • Water Purification


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