​Sewage Surveillance System Detects UK Variant of COVID-19 in Southeast Michigan

​Sewage Surveillance System Detects UK Variant of COVID-19 in Southeast Michigan

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A sewage surveillance program installed at the City of Warren, Michigan, and Oakland University housing recently detected the UK variant of COVID-19 using Aquasight’s COVID-19 Early Warning System (CEWS). The mutations detected were del 69-70 and N501Y, which are markers found in the UK variant.  

Mayor James Fouts says the presence of the B.1.1.7. COVID strain in Warren’s wastewater shows residents must continue to be diligent. “Warren residents can’t let their guard down. We must continue with social distancing, masking and avoiding large social gatherings.”

In the fall of 2020, the United Kingdom first identified the B.1.1.7. variant of COVID-19. The UK variant spreads more easily than other variants, but might be less deadly, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The UK variant has already become ubiquitous in countries like Israel, where it is now responsible for 80% of COVID-19 cases.

Bryan Clor, division head of wastewater in Warren, says he shares testing results with the Macomb County Health Department and with Michigan’s state health department. The speed with which sample results can be analyzed can show the presence of COVID-19 several days before people experience symptoms or an outbreak occurs.

“We had a small spike at one of the senior centers and the Macomb County Health Department was able to respond right away,” says Clor. “People are getting vaccinated, but we still have to be careful. It is going to take all of us working together to get a handle on this.”

Public health officials need as much data and information as possible to develop responses and policies to protect communities from the spread of infectious diseases, according to Dr. Susan Peters, waterborne disease epidemiologist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “Wastewater programs, such as the City of Warren’s, are an important part of that process.”

A similar Aquasight program has been installed at Oakland University housing and has been tracking the growth and decline throughout the campus. Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, M.D., president of Oakland University, says Oakland University has been using sewage surveillance to monitor six locations around campus, including residence halls. On March 11, a moderate signal of the UK variant was detected in one sewage sample. The university is in the process of validating the test to determine if it can be replicated and to determine if other spikes appear in testing.

How the UK variant was detected 

Aquasight’s CEWS program tests show that wastewater contains infectious biomarkers, such as COVID-19 RNA, and the increase or decrease of these markers in a community can be tracked over time in the CEWS program. Genetic material from the virus can be present in human waste, even when the person has no symptoms. 

Also, some people can be infected with COVID-19 for several days before they start to show symptoms. However, the virus could be detected in their waste during this time, which helps with early identification of new or worsening outbreaks. New test methods and targets are being used to specifically understand the presence and quantification of del 69-70 and N501Y mutations, which represent the UK variant, which once detected helps to determine the percentage of COVID-19 sewer signal attributed to the variant.  

“U.S. clinical testing is not ready yet at commercial scale and speed to distinguish various variants and its impact on the surge of cases,” says Mahesh Lunani, CEO and founder of Aquasight. “Aquasight’s CEWS program presents a unique opportunity to not only get advanced and early warning intelligence on COVID-19 spread underground but also correlate if the surges are driven by a variant. By being able to identify variants in places like the City of Warren and Oakland University, the city mayor, the county public health department, and county health departments can act quickly in their efforts to protect the citizens of Southeastern Michigan.”


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