By Greg Barnes
If a new surge of the coronavirus occurs, Cary could be among the first cities to detect the rebound and establish a quick response.
Cary has teamed with the Massachusetts company Biobot Analytics, in collaboration with researchers at Harvard, MIT, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, to sample the city’s untreated sewage for traces of the virus.
New studies show that the coronavirus — with the scientific name of SARS-CoV-2 — can be detected in human feces. If it is found to be increasing in Cary’s wastewater, health officials could use that information to sound the alarm and take precautionary measures, such as telling people to stay home and alerting hospitals of a potential surge in patients.
“We hope to be part of an effort that helps health care workers and communities respond more effectively to what many are predicting will be a second wave,” said Susan Moran, a Cary spokeswoman.
Biobot testing nationwide
Cary’s three wastewater treatment plants are among about 400 in 42 states that have joined Biobot’s pro bono research program. Cary also treats wastewater for Apex, Morrisville and part of Chatham County, more than 200,000 people in all, Moran said.
“This isn’t about a particular point in time, this is about establishing trend data, which is why we asked to do it every week and to do it through the end of this calendar year,” Moran said. “Regardless of what Biobot comes up with, their concentrations or ranges or whatever, we’re going to know what our trends are for a very large portion of Wake County.”
Meanwhile, N.C. State University has begun its own coronavirus sewage research program, concentrating, at least initially, on wastewater treated by the city of Raleigh.
“What we’re hoping is that when you sample the wastewater influence coming to our treatment plant is that you’re sampling from 500,000-plus residents of Raleigh all in one spot,” said Francis de los Reyes, a lead N.C. State researcher on the project. “Then you can use the signal as it goes up and down over time to track the trends in the infection rates in an area.”
Reyes said N.C. State’s project includes wastewater sampling for Raleigh, Durham, western Wake County and the Orange County Water and Sewer Authority.
Cary and N.C. State began taking wastewater samples in April. De los Reyes said N.C. State is still waiting to get back inside its labs, which have been closed because of the coronavirus. For now, the university is taking samples and storing them until the labs reopen and testing can begin.
N.C. State has also teamed with Cary, so that city will have testing done three times each week, twice by the university and once by Biobot, Reyes said.
Although much more research remains, testing for the presence of the virus’ RNA in wastewater could prove a quicker and more reliable method than testing people individually, de los Reyes said. Many people experience mild symptoms or none at all, so they don’t get tested.
Other countries, including Spain, the Netherlands, France, Germany and Finland, have also been sampling wastewater for the virus that causes COVID-19. In the Netherlands, Dutch scientists found the coronavirus in sewage before the first case of COVID-19 was even reported, according to Water & Wastes Digest.
Canary in the coal mine
In North Carolina, which has begun to allow restaurants to reopen and to lift other restrictions imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, there is growing concern that the outbreak will rebound. The wastewater research could prove to be a canary in the coal mine.
“Once states are reopening, I think that’s when it’s probably most useful because then you can sort of say, ‘OK, this is actually, you know, increasing as we are reopening. Or, hopefully, decreasing,’” said de los Reyes, a professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering.
De los Reyes is optimistic about the new research. In time, he said, it could be used to detect hotspots at, say, a single nursing home by examining what’s in its waste stream.
“If it’s cheap enough and streamlined enough and they get samples quickly, the results back quickly, then, in theory, we could sample a nursing home or a group of nursing homes or, you know, prisons, or hotspots,” de los Reyes said.
But he cautioned that the science remains in its early phases, and there is still much more to learn.
“I’d like to be clear that there is potential but I don’t want to oversell that,” he said.
N.C. State’s research is being funded through a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The one-year grant will fund a team of investigators from N.C. State, Rice University, Howard University and the University of Southern California. Wastewater sampling will take place in Raleigh, Washington, Houston and Los Angeles.
Biobot, an MIT startup company, has raked in $4.2 million in seed money to conduct its research at water treatment plants across the country.
Cary officials and researchers at Biobot are old partners. Cary teamed with Biobot in 2018 to begin testing for opioids and other drugs in the city’s sewage. While there is no empirical data to show the effectiveness of that program, Moran said, Cary officials are confident that it helped them to better understand the scope of opioid abuse in the city and to more effectively deal with the problem. The city had experienced a 70 percent increase in opioid overdoses.
Moran, the Cary spokeswoman, said working with both Biobot and N.C. State on coronavirus research should provide better information.
“We’ll be able to compare what Biobot tells us with what N.C. State tells us, and I think having those cross-project conversations will help us get to a more accurate range (of the coronavirus in wastewater) even more quickly,” she said.