Sewage: a rising weapon against the coronavirus

Posted: July 31, 2020
Ohio EPA Wastewater Treatment Plan

To understand how deeply researchers and policymakers want to protect you from the coronavirus, consider this: They’re diving into our sewers.

That’s right, they’re studying your feces.

Because sifting through all that muck could provide critical indicators for the ebbs and flows of the virus in a community.

The Ohio Water Resources Center (Ohio WRC), a federally authorized and state-designated Water Resources Research Institute located at Ohio State, recently received a research award for wastewater COVID-19 surveillance, as part of the Coronavirus Relief Fund through the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. CARES Act.

The Ohio WRC will be coordinating a statewide effort to analyze wastewater, starting with the largest cities, to potentially detect COVID-19 outbreaks days, even weeks, early so communities could be warned, hospitals could mobilize and resources could be prepared. 

Zuzana Bohrerova
Bohrerova

“There is research all over the world showing the ability to detect this virus in the wastewater, both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases,” said Zuzana Bohrerova, associate director of Ohio WRC and lead on the wastewater project. “You could never test everyone every week in all of Ohio. So this is another piece of the puzzle, but an important piece, to give an idea of the spread so informed decisions can be made early.”

Turns out, human waste is a really good indicator of community health

Wastewater-based epidemiology, according to the Ohio WRC website, “represents an unbiased snapshot of the population’s health and lifestyle habits.”

It has been used in the past for tracking infectious diseases, vaccination efforts, drug use, antibiotic resistance and more. In Europe and parts of the United States, wastewater analysis has even been used to track COVID-19.

Remnants of virus RNA has been discovered in wastewater a few days to a week before the first cases/hospitalizations due to SARS-CoV-2 are reported. In the Netherlands early this year, the coronavirus was detected in sewage three weeks before the first documented case. And a single treatment plant captures the waste of the entire community it serves, which can be more than a million people.

“It’s not information on an individual, but it’s broader information you get in addition to all the other clinical data you have that can help you make more informed decisions,” Bohrerova said.

Sounds great, right? There’s a big catch.

It’s a ton of work by a lot of people

The project requires pulling raw sewage samples at wastewater plants; analyzing them quickly; and getting the information to health officials and policymakers who can make critical public health decisions.

“The testing is pretty labor intensive,” said Linda Weavers, co-director of Ohio WRC and a member of the faculty advisory board of Ohio State’s Sustainability Institute. “You need to have a lot of people measuring for these genes in the wastewater to try to figure out what’s happening. So building that capacity is where we’re coming in to try to help them out.

“You need to know where to measure in a wastewater treatment plant, how to measure. You need a set of researchers able to do this. You need to develop a way to provide cohesive results, and we’re trying to do this as quickly as we can to make it smooth. We’re really providing the science so the policymakers can make better, more informed decisions.”

The Ohio Department of Health and Ohio EPA are leading the project and the Ohio WRC is coordinating the network of researchers at U.S. EPA, Ohio State, the University of Toledo, Kent State University and the University of Akron. The team is working with wastewater treatment plants throughout the state to coordinate sample collection.  

But that’s not all. The project requires many disciplines, according to Bohrerova, including statisticians, modelers, analytical microbiologists and wastewater treatment specialists, among others.

And, it’s a project that could set the stage for similar efforts

While detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA  is already being done in Europe and parts of the United States—the state of Utah as well as Boston—it hasn’t been done in a state the size of Ohio, with a population of over 11 million.

So, the Ohio WRC, state agencies, U.S. EPA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working together to develop resources and tools that states and communities can use to monitor wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 RNA. This can be used as part of an effort to develop a national wastewater surveillance monitoring system that can inform policymakers.

“They are very interested in developing a standardized method nationally and using this wastewater-based epidemiology for future outbreaks or other infectious diseases in wastewater,” said Bohrerova, also a Sustainability Institute affiliated faculty member. “They really see Ohio as a way to test and develop a lot of these methods.”

And this isn’t the first time Ohio State has helped the state attack a major problem. In recent years, for example, Ohio Sea Grant has helped the state reduce the impacts of algal blooms in Ohio lakes.

“There’s been a big initiative across the state for academics to help and try to understand and develop approaches to better manage and see if we can mitigate problems like the algal blooms,” said John Lenhart, co-director of Ohio WRC and a Sustainability Institute affiliated faculty member. “So this one has re-established these connections and demonstrates how useful academic research can be for helping solve state issues.”

by Ross Bishoff, Ohio State Insights