KU says wastewater testing could provide early warning signs for COVID-19

Published: Jul. 22, 2020 at 5:00 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - A KU program tracing COVID-19 in wastewater may provide early warning signs to Kansans of the spread of the virus.

The University of Kansas School of Engineering and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment says they have expanded a project to detect COVID-19 virus in the wastewater systems of local communities across the state.

The school says the original project launched in the spring of 2020 and looked for evidence of the virus in 12 Kansas communities and this summer, the roster has expanded to 18 communities, including some in western Kansas.

KU says it has also partnered with the City of Lawrence to test the city’s wastewater weekly.

“The idea is we can’t test everybody in our community,” said Belinda Sturm, associate vice chancellor for research and professor of civil, environmental & architectural engineering, “but we can test the catchment to see if COVID is present in our community if it’s increasing or decreasing.”

Sturm says in late April she began collecting samples from wastewater plants, ranging from big urban plants to small-town lagoon systems from around the state, using a test that looks for signs of the virus’ RNA.

According to Sturm, studies from the Netherlands and Massachusetts suggest these analyses can help local officials understand the virus presence in their community, and if so, just how far any outbreak may reach.

Sturm says the wastewater sampling technique appears to be able to give researchers a one-week heads up that COVID-19 is surging in a community, before case numbers and hospitalizations officially begin to rise.

“It’s a way for us to make sure the community is aware of the prevalence of COVID in the community,” Sturm said. “So that we are not responding after the spike, but preparing before the spike.”

However, the school says researchers and public health officials are still figuring out the best way to use the information. Sturm says the data is so new that researchers need to know how to use it and have confidence in it.

According to Sturm, the preliminary results have been encouraging enough to warrant expanding the effort to other communities. She says the City of Lawrence plans to use the information to be ready for any increased demand on medical personnel, equipment and other health resources.

“The wastewater study is a great example of how our community is collaborating and using every tool in our toolbox to plan and prepare for fighting coronavirus,” said Sonia Jordan, director of informatics for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health. “This study will help us make informed decisions moving forward, including related to staffing, bandwidth and surge capacity.”

Sturm says she began the project after the KDHE contacted her.

“I’ve worked with Professor Sturm on a lot of things — I knew she was on the cutting edge on a lot of issues regarding wastewater,” said Tom Stiles, who directs the Bureau of Water for KDHE. “She jumped right on in.”

Sturm says she wants to emphasize that observing viral RNA in wastewater does not imply that the water is infectious.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, researchers do not know whether the virus can cause disease if a person is exposed to untreated wastewater or sewage systems and there is no evidence to date that this has occurred.

KU and KDHE say they are sharing their results with other researchers nationwide in order to develop best practices for detecting the presence of COVID-19. Sturm and Stiles say this will benefit the state.

“This is part of a wide initiative across the world,” Sturm said. “Across the US there are a lot of folks like me who are doing this, and we’re talking together. A lot of academics are exchanging knowledge right now, in real-time — we usually wait to publish. From a science perspective, it’s really cool to see our scientific infrastructure respond to this crisis.”

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