Wastewater could be key to detecting COVID-19


    A community’s wastewater could be the key to detecting the presence of COVID-19, a disease caused by a new coronavirus.

    The University of Michigan said its researchers have teamed up with those at Stanford University and will begin looking at how COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus, behaves and moves through the environment.

    Krista Wigginton, project leader and U of M associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, said wastewater is an important factor in this project because infected individuals shed viruses — or at least viral genetic material — in their waste.

    The project also will examine how COVID-19 virus responds to ultraviolet and solar light and how conditions like temperature and humidity impacts the transfer of COVID-19 between fingers and inanimate objects. However, that research will have to wait until universities lift the current restrictions on human subjects.

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    Sewage surveillance is already used in Israel to monitor poliovirus circulation and in the case of COVID-19, the data could also provide insights into the diversity of viruses circulating in a community.

    “One of the key areas we’re exploring is whether we can detect this new virus … in a community’s wastewater before it’s known to be circulating there,” Wigginton said. “The case numbers we’re seeing reported in the U.S. and lots of other places are dependent on how many test kits we have. The curve displaying the number of COVID-19 cases is more of a curve of test kit availability in a community. What we see in wastewater may look totally different.”

    Looking at wastewater also could help provide information about how broadly COVID-19 is spreading, because it could pick up evidence of upticks in more mild cases or those that bring no symptoms at all. Additionally, wastewater could help identify areas with rapidly increasing cases more quickly than data based on testing individuals and help epidemiologists model the trajectory of the pandemic with far less testing burden on the health care system.

    If the COVID-19 pandemic continues in waves, wastewater sentinels, which are pieces of equipment used to remotely monitor wastewater, could inform a community the need to put another social distancing mandate in place.

    “Having a better way to know when social distancing is required would be helpful,” said Alexandria Boehm, professor of environmental engineering and the lead of the project at Stanford. “Our hope is that we can detect an uptick in cases with this tool faster than we can through clinical testing. We don’t know that for sure but that’s the hypothesis.”

    However, testing wastewater for the presence of COVID-19 depends on whether the team can detect it. Since the beginning of March, a research team at Stanford Codiga Resource Recovery Center has been gathering samples through the facility’s wastewater pathogen monitoring project. The center is a pilot scale wastewater treatment plant that treats sewage from Stanford’s campus. That project is being led by Stanford environmental engineering and science professor Craig Criddle.

    That team is sampling in several nearby municipalities including Santa Clara County, where two of the nation’s first cases of COVID-19 were reported.

    Several other research groups are looking at wastewater, as well, but so far there are no reports of COVID-19 being detected. The U of M/Stanford team has an advantage in that Wigginton has previously published a study on recovering coronaviruses from wastewater.

    “In addition to collecting wastewater influent samples and archiving them, we’re also grabbing primary solid samples,” Wigginton said. “Our previous work suggests that these viruses stick to wastewater solids more than other viruses. We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to detect something.”

    Madeline Ciak
    Madeline Ciak is a former Michigan Advance reporter. She’s a University of Michigan-Flint graduate and previously worked as a digital media manager at NBC25/FOX66 in Flint and a weekend producer at ABC12.