OSU Keeps Eye on Sewage to Monitor COVID-19

COVID-19 is up sewage creek without a paddle

The COVID-19 shit storm just got a little more interesting.

Oregon State University researchers are monitoring Corvallis’s wastewater to keep an eye on COVID-19. The project is supported by the Oregon Health Authority, according to a press release from OSU.

“We can monitor its rise and fall, detect priority hotspots and then alert the appropriate health authorities, medical researchers and other decision-makers who can go in and take it from there with their knowledge, skills and technologies,” says associate professor of environmental engineering Tyler Radniecki in a statement.

He adds that sewer surveillance cannot put an exact number on how many people in the community are infected, but it can act as a “bloodhound.”

There’s no evidence that COVID-19 can survive as an infectious agent in the sewer, but its RNA signatures do and are detectable. OSU’s lab can do genetic testing with a turnaround rate in three days.

According to the CDC, sewage testing was popular for early detection of other diseases like polio, and the virus behind COVID-19 can be shed in the feces of people who are symptomatic or asymptomatic. On Aug. 16, the CDC announced that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies are working together to deploy the National Wastewater Surveillance System. The CDC is developing a web portal for local governments to submit wastewater data.

Radniecki and OSU chemical and engineering professor Christine Kelly began analyzing Corvallis’s wastewater weekly in May. The researchers didn’t find genetic material from the COVID-19 virus until the end of July. Radniecki says there was a significant spike on July 20 that dropped to a lower level for three weeks after.

“That says the virus is present in the Corvallis community at levels higher than it was this spring and early summer,” he adds.

OSU will continue to sample Corvallis’s wastewater for the next two and a half years thanks to a grant from OHA. According to the OSU press release, OHA gave $1.2 million as part of its sewer monitoring efforts.

During the fall term, OSU will sample wastewater from its campuses in Corvallis, Bend and the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

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