Multidisciplinary research teams investigate evidence of COVID-19 virus in sewage from University of Idaho, Moscow City – The Argonaut


Research teams have found concentrations of the virus that causes COVID-19 in sewage from several University of Idaho residence halls and Greek Life chapters.

UI Biology Professor Eva Top, UI Research Support Scientist Thibault Stalder, and UI Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Erik Coats work in the Water Assessment Teams worn.

Research scientist Cindi Brinkman and lab manager Erin Mack analyze sewage samples from Moscow City and UI at the Coats and Top labs, respectively. Nine sewer locations were chosen to test UI sewage. Individual dormitory floors and Greek chapter houses are untested for time and cost effectiveness, Coats said.

High concentrations of the virus that causes COVID-19 are detected in campus wastewater compared to city wastewater, collected at the city’s treatment facility across the Palouse Mall, where water can be diluted, Stalder said.

“It’s a way to test a whole group of people at once,” Top said. “On campus, you test the different houses, and then when you see there’s a lot of it (the virus that causes COVID-19) in the sewers, you know you should go test those students.”

Stalder said the IU decided to use this detection method because studies in Australia, France and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) showed that the organism responsible for COVID-19, SARS-CoV -2, could be detected in wastewater.

The teams do not estimate the number of cases. Instead, they graph virus concentration in wastewater over time.

The teams used a method that lost much of the virus in the process, so they switched to a method called ultra-filtration.

Ultrafiltration uses a tube with a membrane in the middle. Wastewater samples are placed in the top of the tube and centrifuged or centrifuged rapidly until the water passes through the membrane, leaving the virus to remain in the top of the tube due to the size of the membrane and pores.

After this process, Top and Coat teams deactivate the virus samples.

The virus in the sewage is highly unlikely to be infectious, Stalder said.

The whole process takes about 10 hours to complete and share with UI managers. The team’s goal is to collect and analyze samples from the nine sites twice a week. Samples are taken on Mondays and Thursdays and analyzed the same day or the next day. Teams officially began collecting and analyzing samples on September 3.

Initially, the virus was not detected at most campus sampling sites, Coats says, but more recently there have been worrying spikes.

Elmer Johnson, UI Water Systems Manager, and his team take wastewater samples once or twice a day from the nine locations chosen in conjunction with Top and Coat teams. UI ordered an autosampler to be installed in a sewer manhole to collect samples over a 24 hour period.

Biobot is a private company of MIT make a national effort to test sewage. According to Stalder, the company initially estimated that Moscow had thousands of COVID-19 cases, but that seemed unreasonably high. The company has been updating its system since June, but Stalder and the team are still unsure of its accuracy.

Stalder said a study has shown that half of people infected with the virus are asymptomatic and never show symptoms or show symptoms later (presymptomatic).

“If we see an increase, and we have to be very quick in our analogies, we might be able to detect an outbreak starting because we see the concentration increasing, even before people are tested,” Stalder said.

Coats doesn’t see the point of comparing wastewater treatment plants because of differences in regions and the spread of the virus between populations isn’t well understood.

Stalder said the impacts of their research aren’t normally visible for a few years, so it’s gratifying to see them so quickly now.

“I appreciate the fact that we are a resource; we help; we bring something, I think, that is meaningful,” Coats said. “It’s bigger than us.”

Ui Resident and Greek Life wwaste testing will continue after the Thanksgiving break.

Kim Stager can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @journalismgoals.


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