Shedding of SARS-CoV-2 in feces and urine and its potential role in person-to-person transmission and the environment-based spread of COVID-19

David L. Jones, Marcos Quintela Baluja, David W. Graham, Alexander Corbishley, James E. McDonald, Shelagh K. Malham, Luke S. Hillary, Thomas R. Connor, William H. Gaze, Ines B. Moura, Mark H. Wilcox, Kata Farkas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

The recent detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in feces has led to speculation that it can be transmitted via the fecal-oral/ocular route. This review aims to critically evaluate the incidence of gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, the quantity and infectivity of SARS-CoV-2 in feces and urine, and whether these pose an infection risk in sanitary settings, sewage networks, wastewater treatment plants, and the wider environment (e.g. rivers, lakes and marine waters). A review of 48 independent studies revealed that severe GI dysfunction is only evident in a small number of COVID-19 cases, with 11 ± 2% exhibiting diarrhea and 12 ± 3% exhibiting vomiting and nausea. In addition to these cases, SARS-CoV-2 RNA can be detected in feces from some asymptomatic, mildly- and pre-symptomatic individuals. Fecal shedding of the virus peaks in the symptomatic period and can persist for several weeks, but with declining abundances in the post-symptomatic phase. SARS-CoV-2 RNA is occasionally detected in urine, but reports in fecal samples are more frequent. The abundance of the virus genetic material in both urine (ca. 102–105 gc/ml) and feces (ca. 102–107 gc/ml) is much lower than in nasopharyngeal fluids (ca. 105–1011 gc/ml). There is strong evidence of multiplication of SARS-CoV-2 in the gut and infectious virus has occasionally been recovered from both urine and stool samples. The level and infectious capability of SARS-CoV-2 in vomit remain unknown. In comparison to enteric viruses transmitted via the fecal-oral route (e.g. norovirus, adenovirus), the likelihood of SARS-CoV-2 being transmitted via feces or urine appears much lower due to the lower relative amounts of virus present in feces/urine. The biggest risk of transmission will occur in clinical and care home settings where secondary handling of people and urine/fecal matter occurs. In addition, while SARS-CoV-2 RNA genetic material can be detected by in wastewater, this signal is greatly reduced by conventional treatment. Our analysis also suggests the likelihood of infection due to contact with sewage-contaminated water (e.g. swimming, surfing, angling) or food (e.g. salads, shellfish) is extremely low or negligible based on very low predicted abundances and limited environmental survival of SARS-CoV-2. These conclusions are corroborated by the fact that tens of million cases of COVID-19 have occurred globally, but exposure to feces or wastewater has never been implicated as a transmission vector.

Original languageEnglish
Article number141364
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Volume749
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 20 Dec 2020

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