wastewater dectection

Researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln partnered with the Lincoln Wastewater System for a project that uses wastewater samples for early detection of the coronavirus.

Shannon Bartelt-Hunt, chair of the civil and environmental engineering department at UNL, said in an email that the project started in early April when some of the first reports said the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, can be detected in wastewater. Bartelt-Hunt said the project objective is to use wastewater as a way to determine the amount of COVID-19 cases within a community.  

Bartelt-Hunt said she reached out to researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center because she knew the researchers had expertise in detecting the SARS-CoV-2 virus through clinical samples. Researchers at UNMC said they were interested in collaborating with UNL, so the project started with researchers at UNL collecting wastewater samples, according to Bartelt-Hunt.

Xu Li, a professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering at UNL and co-leader of the Lincoln project, said in an email that the project involves collecting wastewater samples from local water resources recovery facilities, like sewer systems and the wastewater collection system. Li said this allowed the researchers to monitor the spread of the coronavirus in different areas of the city. 

Megan Kelley, assistant professor of nutrition and health sciences and co-leader of the Lincoln project, said in an email that they also plan to examine the associations between wastewater data and community-level demographic, health and policy data.

“This will really be a demonstration study to see if ongoing monitoring at the local level can provide meaningful data for the city,” Kelley said in an email.

Li said that during the second week of July the field crew of Lincoln Transportation and Utilities deployed autosamplers in five manholes in Lincoln, which allowed the researchers to collect wastewater samples representative of different parts of the city. Li said the wastewater samples were brought to the Environmental Engineering Laboratory at UNL and will be analyzed during the next few weeks.

Bartelt-Hunt said people who have COVID-19 will begin to shed, or release, the virus three days after infection, which could be before symptoms start to show. Bartelt-Hunt said that if the researchers know some details about the wastewater sample, like how many people live in the area, where it was collected and how much wastewater people produce per day, researchers can calculate how many COVID-19 cases may be located in a community. 

Other researchers demonstrated that they could predict the number of COVID-19 cases in a community using the wastewater method about a week ahead of those using patient testing, according to Bartelt-Hunt.

Li said the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be spread through the feces of individuals who are infected with the virus, but it can be detected in wastewater systems. Researchers can account for infected individuals that have not been tested, and the researchers can determine the extent of COVID-19 outbreaks in a given community, which may predict potential “hot spots,” according to Li.

Bartelt-Hunt said the wastewater samples continue to be collected in communities in Lincoln, Omaha and Grand Island, and the researchers are finalizing how to detect the coronavirus in wastewater. Once the detection method is established, the researchers want to collect wastewater in other parts of the state, according to Bartelt-Hunt. 

Li said researchers are also exploring the possibility of testing wastewater at the UNL campus during the fall semester. 

Kelley said she hopes the project will provide a clearer comprehension of the coronavirus and be used as a means to counteract it.

“By looking at changes in the level of the virus in wastewater over time, we hope to better understand how the coronavirus spreads, better understand local risk factors and learn whether changes in levels of the virus in wastewater can be an early indication of outbreaks in different areas of the city,” Kelley said.