The city of Cary's wastewater treatment plant, where officials are monitoring raw sewage for the coronavirus: Photo credit: City of Cary
The city of Cary's wastewater treatment plant, where officials are monitoring raw sewage for the coronavirus: Photo credit: City of Cary

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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.

Researchers optimistic

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.

Cary workers, from left, Mark Lovitt, Gerald Mitchell and Rob Garner, drop Biobot equipment into a sewer in 2018 to sample for opioids. The city is using similar technology today to test for the coronavirus: Photo credit: City of Cary.

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.

The city of Cary is sampling wastewater for the coronavirus. The hope is to detect a spike in infections and respond accordingly. Photo credit: City of Cary

Project funding

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.

Greg Barnes

Greg Barnes retired in 2018 from The Fayetteville Observer, where he worked as senior reporter, editor, columnist and reporter for more than 30 years. Contact him at: gregbarnes401 at gmail.com

3 replies on “If the coronavirus rebounds, Cary could be the first to know”

  1. Hello,My name is Rickey Peters. I am saddened to see the devastating global impact of COVID-19; my prayers are with us all. I worked for thirty years as a plant operator for Kansas City, MO. Water Department, Wastewater Treatment Division. While working, I advanced to an “A” level wastewater treatment certification. I retired thirteen years ago. Attached is my poem, “The Wastewater Treatment Plant Workers’ Higher Calling.” The purpose of writing my poetry is to honor and pay tribute to the water treatment profession. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has identified the men and women operating our WWTPs as essential and critical to our everyday living.  My poem has been valued, and I have received sincere responses from wastewater workers, city and state officials, environmentalists, conservationists, journalists, research engineers, Department of Natural Resources, and the community. My poetry has stepped into our moment of COVID-19 crisis and offer words of encouragement to the WWTP workers. It would be so encouraging for a local news outlet to publish a positive message about their service and sacrifice. These brave men and women work in anonymity providing critical infrastructure services. They are warriors on the front-line amidst an empire of diseases performing their duties to protect our environment.
    Stay safe and healthy,
    Rickey L. Peters

    The Wastewater Treatment Plant Workers’ Higher Calling

    Around the kingly and regal conference table sat the Chairman and the Board. Staff members were presenting their year-end reports. The chief of staff, Gabriel, stood and reported, “Mr. Chairman the human race is polluting the waters so much that the natural purification cycle cannot keep up. If the pollution continues at this rate, all of mankind and the poor innocent creatures on earth will soon be poisoned by the contaminated waters.”
    Gabriel continued, “It is a sad indictment against mankind that these waters that were once clean and clear have now become filthy and foul. The waters that were once bubbling, sparkling, rippling and flowing have now become a nasty, stagnant, foul-smelling cesspool of man’s waste.” Gabriel requested, “Mr. Chairman may I blow my horn which will be a signal to our managers to immediately evict all these people who have served as horrible stewards?”
    The Chairman of the Board rose from His throne-like chair and said, “I understand what you are saying Gabriel, but I am going to give them a little more time on their lease. You see I have a plan to produce wastewater treatment plants to aid in nature’s purification process. The designers and builders of these plants will occupy the scene for a while. Nonetheless, the wastewater treatment plant workers will be there from now on and their responsibility will be to maintain and efficiently operate the wastewater treatment plant.” So it became a higher calling: the wastewater treatment plant workers’ marching orders are to reclaim the waters by recycling, replenishing and reviving the polluted waters.
    © 2019 Rickey L. Peters

  2. Like the Sanford Federal Courthouse Raleigh Durham Wake Forest and all of North Carolina have a massive Sewage Scandal. The Sanford Federal Courthouse is an outrage Just Like all the rest of North Carolina ….. Sickening is the word

    Judson Witham

  3. The Sanford Federal Courthouse Sewage Scandal is the tip of the Iceberg in North Carolina. Ole Judson Witham is litigating the Giant Mess at the Sanford Federal Courthouse as well as Demanding Answers from GSA EPA NCEQ and the NCDPS The Parks and Recreation as well.
    The Sanford Federal Courthouse is the tip of the Iceberg in NC and across America. The USA has a massive Sewage Mess from NY to Chicago, San Francisco to Tampa Bay ….. It is a Huge Scandal
    Judson Witham

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