Current estimates of COVID-19 prevalence are largely based on symptomatic, clinically diagnosed cases. The existence of a large number of undiagnosed infections hampers population-wide investigation of viral circulation. Here, we use longitudinal wastewater analysis to track SARS-CoV-2 dynamics in wastewater at a major urban wastewater treatment facility in Massachusetts, between early January and May 2020. SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in wastewater on March 3. Viral titers in wastewater increased exponentially from mid-March to mid-April, after which they began to decline. Viral titers in wastewater correlated with clinically diagnosed new COVID-19 cases, with the trends appearing 4-10 days earlier in wastewater than in clinical data. We inferred viral shedding dynamics by modeling wastewater viral titers as a convolution of back-dated new clinical cases with the viral shedding function of an individual. The inferred viral shedding function showed an early peak, likely before symptom onset and clinical diagnosis, consistent with emerging clinical and experimental evidence. Finally, we found that wastewater viral titers at the neighborhood level correlate better with demographic variables than with population size. This work suggests that longitudinal wastewater analysis can be used to identify trends in disease transmission in advance of clinical case reporting, and may shed light on infection characteristics that are difficult to capture in clinical investigations, such as early viral shedding dynamics.
medrxiv Subject Collection: Infectious Diseases