The Health Ministry will expand a pilot project to monitor municipal sewage systems for traces of the coronavirus to stay ahead of outbreaks, according to an announcement Tuesday. The pilot scheme started in mid-2020 in Ashkelon and later included cities like Binyamina, Beersheba, Kfar Saba, Netanya, Jerusalem, and Tira.
The project will now include over a hundred cities and towns of more than 20,000 people nationwide, where the municipal sewage systems will be monitored twice a week.
The monitoring project has been carried out by Israeli company Kando, a wastewater intelligence and data analytics firm, with researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, as well as Sheba Medical Center’s virology lab.
Kando deploys a network of sensors, autosamplers, and controllers under manholes in cities, and uses original algorithms and artificial intelligence to analyze the data. This allows health authorities to monitor latent morbidity and detect possible upcoming waves of infections by geographical location, the company said in a statement Tuesday.
The solution will enable “the collection of representative samples in a way that optimizes the potential to locate indications of the virus, according to the viral load in the wastewater, and to monitor the level of the morbidity in a particular area,” Kando said.
The Tsur Yigal-based firm previously said it was able to identify outbreaks down to specific neighborhoods and streets in some neighborhoods.
The samples will undergo PCR testing at Ben-Gurion University where lab tests for wastewater are available. If results indicate a high concentration of the virus, an additional test will be carried out to determine the presence of variants to provide a more complete picture to health authorities, the company explained.
Ari Goldfarb, who founded Kando in 2011, started the firm to pinpoint industrial waste in sewage systems. He set his sights on trying to detect the coronavirus in these systems two years ago when the pandemic began gaining pace. “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 in 2020.
Goldfarb said the company’s vision was to “improve public health and environmental surroundings through data from sewage.” Focusing on this data “can improve our lives, our public health and our environment,” he told The Times of Israel in an interview Tuesday.
The data can “warn of changes in a city through the wastewater and communicate to decision-makers that they can improve public health,” he added. Many of the changes can be tracked to industrial waste that can pollute wastewater, and Kando can help identify the exact source of harm, said Goldfarb.
The company works with cities in Israel, the United Kingdom, Italy, and the United States, in states like Texas, California, and Colorado.
When the pandemic broke out, Goldfarb said Kando partnered with the Health Ministry and the two universities to develop a solution “that can provide a fuller picture to decision-makers.”
After a number of successful pilots, including in Ashkelon where the government had set up a hotel for confirmed coronavirus patients, Kando has proven the ability to detect an outbreak ahead of time, Goldfarb said.
“People can carry the virus around for days before they have symptoms and this gives us an early warning before there’s an official outbreak,” he said.
Kando’s systems will now “cover the whole country” to help decision-makers stay alert about virus concentrations, he said, adding that the tech can also point to upcoming abatements.
In May 2020, Kando partnered with scientists and mathematicians in Israel, Europe and the US to determine the accuracy of its technology. The findings, said Goldfarb, confirmed the Health Ministry’s data showing the breadth and the near-exact location of confirmed virus carriers at the time.
Kando’s technology previously proved successful in helping authorities contain a 2013 polio outbreak in the southern Israeli town of Hura, Goldfarb said.
The expansion of the project comes as Israel is battling a fifth wave of coronavirus infections driven by the highly-contagious Omicron variant, which emerged in late November. Morbidity rates have grown steadily in recent weeks, reaching 10,720 new cases on Monday, according to Health Ministry figures.
Health experts believe the overall number of infected Israelis is, in reality, much higher and that many cases are going undetected due to a lack of testing availability. With Israel currently seeing thousands of daily cases in recent days, testing centers have been swamped across the country.
With case numbers continuing to rise, Israel rolled out a campaign to give an extra boost of COVID-19 vaccine protection to those most at risk. On Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced that all Israelis aged 60 and over and medical workers would be eligible for the shots, joining those with immunosuppression.
AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.