Researchers are monitoring COVID-19 infection trends at Utah State University by analyzing sewage samples taken from on-campus student housing facilities. The method shows promising results in detecting the SARS-CoV-2 virus and could lead to a standardized public health tool for tracking and minimizing infections.
Individuals who are infected with COVID-19 shed the virus in feces and urine. Wastewater samples are collected at strategic locations and processed at USU’s NanoBioPhotonics Lab. Student technicians follow a protocol developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to extract a form of genetic material known as ribonucleic acid, or RNA. The presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA can indicate infection.
Daily, on-campus sampling began July 1 and is currently underway at:
- Aggie Village
- Student Living Center Community
- South Campus Community
- Central Campus Community
- Living and Learning Community
- West Stadium Community
“Analyzing wastewater to monitor an infectious disease was implemented previously to monitor the polio virus,” says Keith Roper, a USU professor of biological engineering who’s leading the study. “This is the first time, however, that wastewater monitoring has been performed using modern technologies at a broad scale during a pandemic.”
USU is one of five universities nationwide to publically announce a wastewater monitoring program. As of Aug. 20, there were no indications of the virus in samples collected from USU housing facilities. The university plans to extend the monitoring program and is identifying sampling locations at its Price and Blanding campuses.
“This is an important tool for use in case containment,” said Ellis Bruch, USU director of Emergency Management. “We will likely see an increase in cases a few days ahead of what traditional testing will show, which gives us a head start in containing cases.”
Roper says wastewater monitoring provides useful information about the prevalence and rate of COVID-19 infection, including pre-clinical and asymptomatic cases which may be undetected by clinical measures. This new layer of information can help public health officials anticipate trends and risk of transmission so that an outbreak of cases could be contained more quickly.
The work builds on an earlier pilot study coordinated by the state. In April of this year, Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality collected sewage samples from 10 wastewater treatment sites across Utah and delivered them to three research universities including Roper’s lab at USU for analysis. Results showed trends consistent with reported clinical case rates and matched a recent spike in cases Cache County. The pilot study has since been extended to more than 40 treatment plants across the state, which represents more than 80 percent of Utah’s population.
Roper was one of the lead experts in the pilot study involving scientists from the University of Utah and Brigham Young University. USU professors Randy Martin, Ron Sims and Ryan Dupont provided expertise in wastewater sampling and handling for the pilot and on-campus studies. Undergraduates in the Biological Engineering Department, including Jacilyn Fielding, Jake Accordino, Julissa van Renselaar and intern Joel Dustin were critical to success of the pilot monitoring program. They were joined by Ben Mohlman, Hayden Nelson and Cecilia Sanders when the pilot expanded statewide.