Researchers work to detect remnants of the virus that causes COVID-19 in samples of wastewater collected from across Missouri. (University of Missouri photo)
A project to track coronavirus in wastewater may be able to identify the new strain recently identified in the United Kingdom, a researcher at the University of Missouri-Columbia said Wednesday.
For more than six months, a research team at MU has worked with the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Health and Senior Services to collect and analyze samples of wastewater from around the state. A news release issued Tuesday by the Department of Natural Resources said the team is currently testing 59 community wastewater facilities weekly and has tested more than 2,000 samples.
The data is now available to the public on a webpage that shows where concentrations of the virus that causes COVID-19 are increasing, stable or decreasing.
The regular sampling can give some advance warning to health officials that cases are spiking in a community or verify the case rates seen in testing, said Marc Johnson, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at MU.
And it may give notice when a new strain of an existing disease, like the UK variant that has caused a new national lockdown in Great Britain, or a newly emerging disease arrives in a community, Johnson said.
“What’s nice is we are banking the samples, so if there is something new, we could go back and find out when it appears here,” he said in an interview with the Independent. “If the variant is here we should be able to find out when it arrived and perhaps where.”
The UK variant has been found in five states so far – California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, and New York – and likely reached the U.S. sometime in December.
So far, no cases with the new variant have been reported in the state and Johnson said his team is not quite ready to say wastewater testing will work to find it.
“Hopefully, within a week I can tell you if it works or not,” he said.
The original strain of the coronavirus is now responsible for 408,443 cases of COVID-19 in Missouri, with 2,854 new cases reported Wednesday. The state health department reported 33 additional deaths Wednesday, bringing the state total to 5,858.
The death total includes 250 identified Monday as part of the weekly review of past death certificates that found one unrecorded death from August, two from October, 54 from November and 193 from December.
Case numbers, the positive rate on tests and hospitalizations continue to run at a high rate but all three measures are well below their peaks. The seven-day average of reported cases was 2,798 per day on Wednesday, while the peak on Nov. 20 was 4,723 per day. The positive rate, 19.7 percent, is below the peak of 24.6 percent and hospitalizations stood at 2,738 inpatients on Sunday, the last day with confirmed data.
Hospitalizations hit a peak of 2,862 inpatients on Dec. 22.
The vaccine rollout is being tracked by the Centers for Disease Control and data through Tuesday morning showed Missouri has administered about 34.5 percent of the doses received so far.
By taking samples of sewage as it enters a local treatment plant, the researchers can get a view of an entire community. That helps show the levels of disease without other factors, such as access to testing or economic or social issues, coming into play.
The data, according to the Department of Natural Resources news release, shows that a 40 percent increase in viral load over a week, or two consecutive weeks of 25 percent increases or greater, is followed by at least a 25 percent increase in cases in more than two-thirds of the communities measured.
That means wastewater sampling can show when health officials can expect a surge in cases, Johnson said.
“It is not a big sort of advance warning but a couple of days,” he said.
It is a better tool when used to identify the arrival or spread in smaller groups. For example, the wastewater for every Missouri state prison is being sampled regularly to help monitor COVID-19 among inmates.
Johnson has been working on the project with Chung-Ho Lin, a research associate professor and lead scientist in the bioremediation program at the MU Center for Agroforestry. Johnson starts his day early, preparing the samples for analysis, while Lin works in the afternoon and evening to complete the analysis and get the results to local health departments.
“This is a dream for every scientist,” Lin said in a release from MU. “By the time I wake up in the morning, somebody is going to benefit from the analysis we ran the night before.”
The lessons learned from the project will be beneficial when new or existing diseases start spreading in a community, Johnson said. His team has found syphilis, herpes and other indicators of diseases as part of the testing.
So far, he said, there is no indication that the viral remnants in the wastewater are infectious.
The monitoring will continue as vaccines are administered, which is likely to result in a decrease in testing for the virus, the release said. The wastewater also will be helpful in determining when a community is entirely clear of the virus, the release said.
“Peace of mind is priceless, especially after the pandemic is over,” Lin said. “Everyone will still be curious about whether the virus is still out there, circling around, and this testing will help put those fears to rest.”
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