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It’s in the water: WVU scientists turning No. 2 into a No. 1 predictor of COVID-19 infections

A team of WVU scientists are taking to sewers around campus to test wastewater for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. (WVU Photo/Scott Lituchy)

As the fictional Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles roam sewers to fight their archenemy Shredder and his goons, a team of real-life West Virginia University superhero scientists lurk around the portals to the underground land of drainage and waste to battle a more sinister villain: COVID-19. 

Every morning, researchers prop open a manhole cover, dip down a bottle to collect wastewater, seal it up and transport it in a cooler to a lab. 

Inside the lab, scientists seek to flush out coronavirus by testing the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in those water samples. That’s because infected people shed virus particles through their feces when they use the bathroom. 

Since summer, that’s been the job of the WVU COVID-19 wastewater testing team, a cross-disciplinary cohort that includes Timothy Driscoll, assistant professor of biology; Gordon Smith and Brian Hendricks, of epidemiology; and Emily Garner, of civil and environmental engineering. They have the unsavory task of collecting wastewater flowing out of student housing and other University buildings. 

“This can tell us the trend of infection among a population,” Driscoll said. “Ideally and theoretically, we can use this as a predictor. If we see COVID in the wastewater start to increase, we can raise the alarms and have more targeted public health interventions, such as increased testing in that area.” 

Monitoring wastewater gives researchers the opportunity to detect the virus early before symptoms would appear in infected individuals. 

Spawned by another epidemic

Shortly after the pandemic hit the U.S., the WVU Research Office and WVU Health Sciences decided to test out this approach. Smith and Hendricks, who were developing studies of the presence of opioids in wastewater, began to wonder if such methods could be used to study COVID-19. Encouraged by Rochelle "Rocky" Goodwin, Senior Associate Vice President of Academic and Public Strategy, Smith realized the potential value to use wastewater testing in West Virginia for early detection of COVID-19 outbreaks.

“There's been a lot of work done around the world, especially in Europe, with wastewater sampling,” said Smith, of the School of Public Health. “Many countries have used it to monitor drug levels in communities.” 

In recent years, Smith has focused his research on the opioid epidemic in rural pockets of West Virginia. He and Hendricks had submitted a grant to the National Institutes of Health to establish a monitoring system in sewers and wastewater treatment plants throughout West Virginia in an effort to analyze drug usage within communities. 

It then dawned on Smith that this system would be perfect for monitoring COVID-19 both on campus and in communities. 

Hendricks had worked in Driscoll’s lab, which has equipment that can conduct droplet digital polymerase chain reaction, or ddPCR, testing. It’s a method that allows scientists to take a very small sample of DNA and amplify it to large amounts – replicating millions to billions of copies of a specific DNA sample. The results can be used to count how many copies of the virus are present in a sample of wastewater. 

PCR is the gold standard in SARS-CoV-2 detection. PCR testing identifies RNA, the genetic material, that is specific to the virus. 

So Smith and Hendricks asked Driscoll to help them undertake the project beginning in the spring of 2020. 

Now at least dozens of universities around the county are testing wastewater in a similar fashion to monitor COVID-19 spread. 

Individual vs. community

What makes wastewater testing more advantageous than, say, an individual nose swab, is that it captures the prevalence of COVID-19 in a larger population, according to scientists. 

And it can cut down on costs. 

“It can be a relatively inexpensive alternative to testing every single person or testing large numbers of people multiple times,” Driscoll said. “With one water sample, we can test an entire residence hall or complex or community and get an idea of whether we should be worried about COVID increasing in a particular place. This can be beneficial especially in West Virginia where we may not have the ability to move healthcare resources around the state rapidly.” 

During the project, the team noticed a couple of spikes on campus over the past several months. One was when bars reopened in Morgantown in early September after being closed since July. The bars shut down just a few days later after reopening. 

“Our results correlated with the increase in cases on campus and in Monongalia County,” Driscoll said. “As bars shut back down, we saw the number drop off.” 

Once the team processes its test results, it forwards them to WVU administration and health officials to help formulate appropriate responses to the data. 

Spreading…the initiative

The research team’s work has been deemed successful enough that it’s caught the attention of municipalities and even state officials. 

The team is looking to expand the project to communities throughout the state and at facilities such as other universities, nursing homes and prisons, places where outbreaks are more likely to happen. 

“Those are concerning because outbreaks can burn fairly hot where there’s close contact between people in congregate populations,” Driscoll said.  “And as COVID manifests in the body, many people are asymptomatic and it can spread even before you see any symptoms. Those populations we’re particularly concerned about.” 

With influenza season upon us, wastewater surveillance can be even more critical. 

“Influenza and COVID share a number of basic symptoms, so it will be really useful to be able to disentangle flu outbreaks from COVID outbreaks,” Driscoll added. 

Even beyond flu season, and when a COVID-19 vaccine is readily available, researchers believe wastewater testing will remain a staple in monitoring the spread of the virus for quite some time. 

“COVID-19 is not going to suddenly go away, even when we set up our immunization programs,” Smith said. “We strongly believe that wastewater surveillance is a very important part of public health. And it’s a perfect collaboration of a land-grant university, with its mission to serve the state and the people of the state. 

“We've got the scientific expertise to do the testing, interpret the results and put it into practice. We are now working with the National Guard, the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute and other agencies in the state on implementing this on a broader scale. At the same time, we're hoping to learn new pieces of science, new approaches and new practices and we recently submitted a research grant to NIH to expand our research in this area.” 




CONTACT: Tara Scatterday
Executive Director, Communications and Institutional Relations
WVU Health Sciences

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