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Researchers launch sewage testing program, ship sampling kits to measure COVID-19 spread


With patient testing facing limitations, a team of biologists, epidemiologists, data scientists, urban planners and engineers are soliciting wastewater treatment samples from facilities across the U.S. to better analyze and map the true spread of COVID-19.

Researchers from biotech startup Biobot Analytics have already been processing data that shows how the virus is shed in stool and is essentially collecting in city sewers. Now, they are willing to ship sampling kits and instructions to wastewater facilities across the U.S., who would collect local samples and return them to Biobot to help expand the scope of their analysis and mapping efforts.

“Wastewater epidemiology can help to gauge the level of COVID-19 infection because a broad community or area can be tested rapidly,” said Newsha Ghaeli, Biobot Analytics co-founder and president, in a statement to media. “And by identifying SARS-CoV-2 in asymptomatic individuals, Biobot can help public health officials plan more effectively.”

For instance, Biobot Analytics, along with researchers from MIT, Harvard, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, have already collected sample data from wastewater facilities in Massachusetts. The results show that the amount of coronavirus particles in the samples was far higher than expected based on clinical testing results.

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But the real challenge may come with quantifying the actual scale of infection in a population from wastewater samples to ensure it is fully representative. In Massachusetts, where some 446 COVID-19 cases were officially reported at the time of sampling, the wastewater data suggests that the actual number could be 2,300 cases at the very lowest end of the spectrum. Other indicators suggest the number could be significantly higher.

The use of wastewater samples harkens back to when officials used sewage to assess the success of vaccination campaigns against poliovirus. It is known as wastewater-based epidemiology.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “COVID-19 has been detected in the feces of some patients diagnosed with COVID-19.” Additionally, CDC officials report that, “The risk of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 from the feces of an infected person is also unknown. However, the risk is expected to be low based on data from previous outbreaks of related coronaviruses, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). There has been no confirmed fecal-oral transmission of COVID-19 to date.”

All teams involved in the Biobot testing are working pro bono. The organization is asking only that communities cover the costs of the sampling kit and shipping at $120 per sample.

Data from sewage will enable communities to:

  1. Measure the scope of the outbreak independent from patient testing or hospital reporting, and include data on asymptomatic individuals;
  2. Provide decision support for officials determining the timing and severity of public health interventions to mitigate the overall spread of the disease;
  3. Better anticipate likely impact on hospital capacity in order to inform hospital readiness and the necessity of public health interventions;
  4. Track the effectiveness of interventions and measure the wind-down period of the outbreak, and;
  5. Provide an early warning for re-emergence of the coronavirus (if it does indeed have a seasonal cycle).

Source: Biobot Analytics


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