Battelle Research Pinpoints Local Viral Outbreaks Through Sewage Examination

Mar 16, 2021

Battelle research shows that analyzing wastewater for the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19 can pinpoint specific neighborhoods that are hotspots for viral outbreaks.

A team from Battelle has published a preliminary report based on research conducted last summer. Funded by the National Science Foundation through a COVID-19 rapid response program grant, the pilot test sampled wastewater in Toledo, Ohio throughout the month of July. Led by Senior Genomics Research Scientist Rachel Spurbeck and co-authored by Data Scientist Angela Minard-Smith and Biologist Lindsay Catlin, the paper will appear in “Science of the Total Environment” following peer review.

The findings add to a growing body of scientific work that is helping combat the highly infectious disease, realizing that testing massive amounts of people to find cases can be expensive, time-consuming, inconvenient and complex. By focusing on a neighborhood or facility that’s likely to have an outbreak before testing any individuals, more precise measures to control outbreaks can be taken.

Researchers tested wastewater for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, as well as other pathogens, to help pinpoint specific neighborhoods that were hotspots for infectious disease outbreaks. The team collected effluent from specific manhole locations around the city using 24-hour automatic samplers.

“What’s different about our study is that we sampled effluent from a neighborhood, from a nursing home and from two hospitals to provide a more fine-scale picture of where COVID-19 was present and we have sequenced the COVID-19 to identify viral variants circulating within the city,” said Spurbeck.

This work demonstrates that wastewater-based genomic epidemiology is a tool available to public health agencies in our efforts to contain the virus and end the pandemic, and after the pandemic is over, could be used to monitor other illnesses of public health interest such as gastrointestinal diseases like norovirus or Salmonella.

“This work, when expanded across the country in other cities and neighborhoods, will enable our economy to reopen safely by differentiating regions by SARS-CoV-2 prevalence in a fine-tuned manner,” said Spurbeck. “It will help contact tracing to focus on regions where it is needed and to reduce fear or anxiety where there is little to no viral load.”

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