It sounds like a crappy job, but it just might help save lives.
If you have the coronavirus, it is passing right through you, researchers confirm, and, with every flush, it’s going into the sewer. As a result, Detroit public officials now hope by collecting sewage samples, they can track and predict outbreaks.
Officials announced Monday they are refocusing a two-year-old study with Michigan State University that originally was set up to look at whether disease-causing viruses could be detected in the city’s sewer system.
“We are excited by the efforts of MSU and the implications this work may have in supporting our response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Denise Fair, Detroit’s top public health officer. “I am encouraged and applaud any effort that seeks to enhance the health and well-being of our community.”
Exciting and sewage are not two words that usually go together in the same sentence, but for public officials who have been trying for two months now to stop the spread of the deadly virus, any development is welcome.
So far, studies around the world have shown some promise in testing untreated sewage to create a kind of early warning system for outbreaks, and the research has concerns that the number of coronavirus cases may be undercounted.
It is still too early in Detroit to know how the city will track the virus, and how long it will take to turn the academic work into an actual process, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department spokesman Bryan Peckinpaugh said.
There’s also some talk, he added, of using robots to take the samples to help limit the contact humans must have with coronavirus.
But the trend — testing sewage as a cost-effective way to detect infections — appears to have shown some success, and has even given rise to a company, Biobot Analytics, that specializes in such research, noting on its website that “everybody pees and poops, every day.”
Biobot Analytics — which bills itself as the “first company in the world to commercialize data from sewage” — believes that mapping what sewage samples indicate empowers communities “to tackle public health proactively.”
In France, scientists found a “rise and fall” in coronavirus concentrations that matched COVID-19 outbreaks in Paris and nearby areas where a lockdown appeared to suppress the spread of the disease, according to the nonprofit American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The April study, the AAAS report said, sampled sewage throughout Paris for more than a month. The results seemed to “show that the technique can pick up a sharp rise in viral concentrations in sewage before cases explode in the clinic.”
At about the same time, a study in Australia wastewater in Brisbane also detected coronavirus.
The Paris study also suggested that sewage sampling might be able to help identify people who might be infected with COVID-19 but were not be showing any symptoms of the disease.
Testing untreated waste, the AAAS report said, just might be “a cheap, noninvasive tool to warn against outbreaks,” which is what Detroit officials also are hoping their study will show.
Last month in Texas, Rice University scientists tested Houston wastewater samples for COVID-19. There, they hope that the process will reveal the spread of coronavirus as clinical testing lags, the Houston Chronicle reported.
And in Somerville, Massachusetts, where Biobot is based, an analysis of sewage by scientists found more coronavirus in its samples than the reported cases would have indicated.
That study did not explain the discrepancy, but one theory was cases are more widespread than public counts have shown.
So far, Detroit health officials said, the Detroit study found viruses in the sewer collection system about one to two weeks before those same viruses showed up in health departments data.
Between November 2017 and February 2018 and then again between October 2018 and March 2019, samples were collected weekly before treatment at Detroit’s Water Resource Recovery Facility.
The project is still in the research phase.
The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department serves more than 230,000 accounts that include a residential population of about 700,000. The water network consists of 3,000 miles of sewer collection pipes in Detroit.
Led by Irene Xagoraraki, an MSU associate professor of environmental engineering, the Detroit study is underwritten by a two-year National Science Foundation and a two-year grant from the Great Lakes Water Authority.
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Beyond detecting infections, researchers hope the study will aid future research.
It is unclear whether the virus found in human waste is capable of causing COVID-19, and there are no confirmed reports of the virus in feces spreading to people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said.
But to be safe, Detroit officials are considering whether samples can be collected with machines, instead of by hand, which seems like it would be a nasty chore.
The next step also is to take sewer samples in specific districts and neighborhoods.
However, the CDC has said, once wastewater is treated that seems to inactivate the coronavirus, and there is no evidence that coronavirus is spread to people through the water in pools, hot tubs, spas, or water play areas.
“This project has significant implications for providing an advance notice signal of disease incidence in the community,” said John Norton, the director of energy research and innovation at GLWA. “The various use case scenarios we are developing for the virus data found in the environment will have short, medium, and long-term uses.”
Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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