Why Wastewater Testing Is Critical in the Fight Against COVID-19

Wastewater from at least 30 states is being tested by a company called Biobot for the presence of COVID-19, and the findings will be instrumental in leadership decisions going forward

Why Wastewater Testing Is Critical in the Fight Against COVID-19

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Almost certainly you’ve seen headlines about wastewater treatment plants around North America joining the fight against COVID-19 by testing wastewater in an effort to predict viral hotspots. Our industry is well positioned to be a key player in the fight through this kind of routine testing during the pandemic.

Researchers have confirmed that the COVID-19 virus can be detected in the untreated waste of positive patients, and numerous treatment facilities across the U.S. are taking advantage of that and working to help track the spread of the outbreak.

A company paving the way for sewage testing called Biobot, located in Boston, Massachusetts, has assembled a team of biologists, epidemiologists, data scientists, urban planners and engineers to track SARS-CoV-2 in stool that is making its way into the sewers and to our wastewater treatment plants.

Recently, officials at the Wareham, Massachusetts, wastewater treatment plant submitted samples to Biobot to be tested.

“We do composite sampling regularly for testing for the EPA anyway, so we just record flow of the plant that day and send the samples to Biobot in the bottles they provide, and they do their sampling,” says Guy Campinha, director of water pollution control at the Wareham plant.  

An industrywide effort

Once the sample is received at the lab, they’re able to isolate the unique genetic signature of the virus and determine how much is present in the sample. That data can then be leveraged with thousands of other samples to estimate the occurrence of COVID-19 in the population. “I think in the long-term it’s going to help communities predict hot spots,” says Campinha. “Every community should get involved because COVID-19 is here, we need to understand it, and if we can get a handle on it and help the board of health and officials make decisions, it’s a win-win-win for everybody.”

Moving forward, Campinha is thinking they perform routine sampling around once per month to keep an idea of what’s going on the community and perhaps more if results warrant it, and he hopes other will do the same. “I think the frequency should depend on what they’re finding.”

The goal is to better track the outbreak nationwide through local community effort. The more data supplied, the more accurate trend analysis will be, and the better off government officials will be when they need to determine when areas can safely reopen businesses and communities. It can also be used for early detection of the reemergence of the virus in populations. 

This puts treatment plants in a position to be a key player in the battle against COVID-19 and provides yet another way for those dedicated to sanitation to contribute to public health not just locally, but nationwide.  

Numerous plants have already been making moves in the same direction. A multitude of stories can be found across the web of plants submitting samples and contributing to the study. 41 KSHB News out of Kansas reported that the Kansas Department of Health and Environment contacted the University of Kansas and is collaborating on testing samples from 12 wastewater plants in their area. According to FOX 8 News, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District says it’s exploring a partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency to provide water samples to Biobot from its three water treatment plants.

These are just a few examples of the efforts taking place throughout the country. In the article from FOX 8, it was reported that sewage from 30 states are currently being tested with Biobot. 

“Wastewater is social, it’s the backbone of the community and it tells you what’s going on,” Campinha says. “This is just one other tool that we can use to assess the community to help those in charge of health make better decisions.”

Treatment plant operators, government officials, and anyone else interested in sewage testing services can get in touch with Biobot here.


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