Virginia Tech researchers test wastewater to learn more about COVID-19

Published: Sep. 23, 2020 at 11:22 PM EDT
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BLACKSBURG, Va. (WDBJ) - As we work to learn more about how COVID-19 spreads, researchers are looking at different ways to find the virus before people even know they have it.

Peter Vikesland and Amy Pruden are co-directors of a wastewater project at Virginia Tech project. They have been working about five years to create a sewage monitoring protocol for antibiotic resistance. Just when they were beginning to launch that effort, COVID-19 hit.

“The scientific community started looking at ways we could track down COVID, and a lot of the methods we had developed for the antibiotic resistance sewage monitoring project really translated well into switching gears and looking at COVID in sewage,” Pruden said.

Pruden said wastewater-based epidemiology has proven to work for some pathogens such as polio, where they were able to catch outbreaks early on, but everything is still so new with this virus.

“Obviously it’s just emerging for monitoring COVID and so we’re all kind of learning on the ground and it’s been really encouraging to see the scientific community come together,” she said.

Right around the time when classes started up again on campus, this team of researchers at Virginia Tech decided to use that wastewater to try and find out what buildings might have coronavirus before the people in them show any symptoms.

“It’s essentially a tool to help us figure out how to optimize the resources that are going to be used for contact tracing,” Vikesland said.

Pruden said the challenge for them right now is that methods are not as well developed to go into the sewage network. Usually they would test at the treatment plant. That’s the puzzle they’re trying to solve on campus now.

The team has students help them collect samples from 15 manholes around campus. They go out twice a week and collect 30 samples to test.

“We would really like to prevent any outbreaks or be able to catch them beforehand,” said PhD student Ayella Maile-Moskowitz.

The school is also adding composite samplers to the locations.

“Those will grab a sample automatically every hour for 24 hours and make sure that we don’t miss anything,” Pruden said.

Once that’s all done, it’s sent to the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke where the nasal swab samples are tested to see if clinical and sewage numbers match up.

“This is science in real time and that can be just messy. You have to recognize the fact that we don’t necessarily know where we’re going because we’re figuring out the questions as we go,” Vikesland said.

They are hopeful to one day find a signal in the sewage of how many people are carrying the virus.

“Anything we can do to help identify people that are positive with COVID and stop the spread and get us on the other side of this pandemic is great,” Pruden said.

Because the research is still new on campus, it’s too soon to draw any conclusions from the data that is being compiled. We will follow up with the team in the coming weeks.

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