Wastewater may not be a waste after all.
In fact, researchers hope data collected from Stafford County’s two wastewater treatment facilities will help identify and predict future spreads of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
Stafford’s facilities, along with more than 100 wastewater treatment plants across the U.S., are participating in a no-cost pilot program that takes advantage of valuable information found in wastewater that contains human urine and feces. Those human excrements can carry chemical metabolites of certain viruses that can help serve as an early indicator of disease before it spreads.
Data gleaned from the wastewater could ultimately provide insight into the health of communities without collecting personal identifiable information, or interacting directly with the health care system.
Only three other Virginia sites are participating in the nationwide study, led by Biobot Analytics of Somerville, Mass. Biobot representatives declined to disclose the locations of the remaining Virginia test sites.
“Biobot launched its COVID-19 response program because studies showed that SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, is shed in the stools and thus collecting in our city’s sewers,” Biobot spokeswoman Sarah Pugsley wrote in an email this week. “Recent studies also show that there are asymptomatic patients who are still infectious or patients with mild symptoms who are not captured in the limited testing data—yet because sewage data is able to capture the whole population, such samples enable our public health interventions to match and better understand the actual infected population.”
Pugsley wrote that her organization believes that collecting data from sewage will “enable communities to, first and foremost, measure the scope of the outbreak independent from patient testing or hospital reporting, and include data on asymptomatic individuals.”
Test kits were sent to Stafford County in April, where wastewater plant managers collected samples locally before sending them to Biobot for analysis.
“When the results are returned to the county, we will share the findings with the Rappahannock Area Health District,” said Andrew Spence, county communications director.
Biobot is working on the project in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, both located in Cambridge, Mass., as well as Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.