The U.S. EPA Water Research Lab in Cincinnati is partnering with the Metropolitan Sewer District to look for the virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) in a unique way.
Because there's evidence even asymptomatic patients shed the virus into wastewater, the EPA is studying samples from MSD's seven major treatment plants in Greater Cincinnati to understand coronavirus trends, and be able to give health officials an early heads up if it looks like a surge of cases is coming.
"At this time we think that it's not a live version of the virus, although we are working on that," explains Jay Garland, lead researcher for the EPA national study. "But certainly there are a lot of gene copies in wastewater. So the idea is, can we use that kind of collective community signal to track the number of infections in the population?"
On Wednesday, MSD Assistant Superintendent of Regulatory Compliance and Safety Division Bruce Smith and his staff will begin providing the EPA with samples from its seven major treatment plants.
He says MSD can vary the type and location of samples. "We are starting by using composite samples at our wastewater plants which comprise many individuals," he says. "In the future we may be able to devise sentry locations in our sewer system to provide early warning of outbreaks of infection. This might include areas around hospitals or other known vulnerable locals such as nursing homes."
It's unclear how long it will take to perfect the testing method. Garland says there are a lot of variables, such as "working on the inside of the sewers and understanding the influences there and then ultimately relating it back to what we know is going on in the community."