Modern wastewater treatment plant. Tanks for aeration and biological purification of sewage at sunset.

US study to broaden detection of coronavirus in wastewater

Image credit: Mulderphoto/Dreamstime

Researchers in the US have received a major federal grant to further study how wastewater can be used to help predict coronavirus outbreaks.

Although preventing the transmission of Covid-19 still remains a challenge, researchers at the University of Miami are using all the strategies they can to fend off the spread. This includes using cutting-edge research to detect SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid-19 – in wastewater.

Detecting traces of the virus in sewage flowing from campus buildings may provide up to a week’s notice ahead of positive Covid-19 test results to warn students and faculty that they should get tested and self-isolate before the illness spreads, according to the researchers. 

“Research has shown that people will start excreting the virus in their faeces and urine before showing symptoms of Covid-19, so the idea is to use wastewater measurements as an early warning for a potential Covid-19 outbreak in the community,” said Helena Solo-Gabriele, a professor of environmental engineering at the Floridian university.

Solo-Gabriele, along with a team of experts across fields such as pharmacology, biomedicine, and medicine, received a major grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct the research, with funding starting this month. The two-year, $5m (£3.6m) grant will help broaden the university’s own pilot programme to detect the virus in wastewater.

Graduate student Kristina Babler processes wastewater samples in the lab.

Graduate student Kristina Babler processes wastewater samples in the lab.

Image credit: University of Miami

According to co-investigator Stephan Schürer, a professor of molecular and cellular pharmacology at the Miller School of Medicine, with this new funding, the team will also join a consortium organised by the NIH to collect and standardise data from institutions across the US that are testing wastewater for the virus.

Schürer said he will work to create data criteria and software tools so that the wastewater figures and associated information can be seamlessly stored, compiled, and analysed. “This will help scientists correlate information from a range of sources more efficiently,” she added.

The researchers said they are grateful for the boost in funding because the team will now be able to expand and further evaluate innovative technologies for collecting, concentrating, and detecting the virus in wastewater. They will also explore the relationship between the environmental concentration of the virus and the results of human testing to create models that can predict Covid-19 outbreaks.

Christopher Mason, an associate professor of physiology and biophysics and of computational genomics in computational biomedicine, will also be leading the team to use next-generation sequencing technology to characterise SARS-CoV-2 genetic variations, look for novel viruses, and link this data to national and global efforts to track emerging pathogens.

Ultimately, Solo-Gabriele hopes to create a primer they can share with leaders across the nation about the best ways to identify the virus in wastewater and how it can be used to quickly warn individuals of potential infection. The team also hopes to offer strategies that communities can use to reduce imminent transmissions when they detect a spike in wastewater, she added.

In July 2020, the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology launched a collaborative project to develop a standardised system to detect coronavirus in wastewater as a way to monitor future outbreaks in the UK. 

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