Israeli tech firm successfully tracks down COVID-19 in Ashkelon’s sewers

In pilot program that could help avoid sweeping lockdown measures, wastewater management company Kando identifies virus hotspots down to street level

Technicians from Israeli firm Kando extract sewage samples from a manhole near the beach, in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon, on June 11, 2020. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)
Technicians from Israeli firm Kando extract sewage samples from a manhole near the beach, in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon, on June 11, 2020. (MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)

An Israeli wastewater management technology firm said on Thursday that a pilot project it conducted to detect coronavirus outbreaks in sewage was successful.

The project was carried out by the company Kando alongside researchers from Ben Gurion University, the Technion and other institutions.

The firm was able to identify outbreaks down to specific neighborhoods and streets, Kando said in a statement.

Ashkelon was thought to have a low level of infections, but the researchers found “significant remnants of coronavirus in municipal wastewater.”

The project’s success could mean that tracking the virus could be done more efficiently through sewers than through testing people, especially since many individuals do not exhibit symptoms, Kando said.

Pinpointing outbreaks could help authorities avoid sweeping lockdown measures, the firm said.

Kando said it was discussing expanding the project with several cities in Israel and in other countries.

Ari Goldfarb, who founded Kando, started the firm to pinpoint industrial waste in Ashkelon’s labyrinthine municipal sewage system, but set his sights on the virus when coronavirus patients were moved into a hotel in the city taken over by the government.

“When this COVID-19 pandemic came, it was clear to us that we can use this system, or this knowledge, to give a better insight” into the virus, he told AFP.

The company has placed a network of sensors, autosamplers and controllers under manholes in Ashkelon, and uses original algorithms and artificial intelligence to analyze its data.

In May, Kando partnered with scientists and mathematicians in Israel, Europe and the United States to embark on a month-long pilot to determine the accuracy of the technology.

The findings, said Goldfarb, conformed with the Health Ministry’s data showing the breadth and the near-exact location of confirmed virus carriers, including the hotel used by patients.

“We’re the only one who can tell where the outbreak is and how big the outbreak is in the city,” said Goldfarb.

Ari Goldfarb, founder and CEO of Israeli firm Kando, poses next to a manhole used to analyze sewage samples, near the beach in the southern coastal Israeli city of Ashkelon, on June 11, 2020. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

Sewage has also been tested in cities like Melbourne, Paris, Tokyo, Amsterdam and Valencia and the US state of Massachusetts — although mostly on a small scale and without precision.

Kando’s manhole sensors can measure the flow of wastewater and how far it has traveled, using algorithms to determine the best moment to automatically collect samples.

They are then analyzed at a number of laboratories, with the findings instructing the firm on the direction to follow within the sewage system’s pipes to reach the source of the virus, Goldfarb said.

Scientists around the world have already detected COVID-19 in patients’ stools within sewage systems, but can only provide a general reading of the presence of the virus in a community.

Kando’s technology can go further, according to Goldfarb, by giving a more precise location of an outbreak, potentially helping authorities control diseases.

The technology can detect the virus “in the sewage [of] asymptomatic people, so we know about a new outbreak before it really [spreads],” said Goldfarb.

Kando’s technology already proved successful in helping authorities contain a 2013 polio outbreak in the southern town of Hura, he said.

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