MORGANTOWN – Researchers at West Virginia University are taking to the sewers to combat the COVID-19 virus and the mission has evolved.
In 2020, researchers would open a manhole cover, submerge a bottle to collect wastewater, and then take it to a laboratory to test for the virus as people shed virus particles through their feces.
The official name of the project is WaTCH-WV (Wastewater Analysis for Community Health in West Virginia). Collaborators at Marshall University are also conducting trials in the Huntington area.
With the new academic year, researchers have resumed sampling on campus, but are using an egg-shaped robot called an autosampler in the sewers that collects samples every 20 minutes over a 24-hour period.
It is part of a $ 2.9 million state project aimed at developing a testing network in West Virginia and identifying communities of concern for COVID-19.
The project, supported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, will monitor wastewater in more than 50 wastewater plants, in addition to congregating settings. high-risk, such as college campuses, around the state.
A year ago, Timothy Driscoll, project leader and associate professor of biology, and his team were sampling about 15 sites on campus. Last September, they began testing a local wastewater treatment plant to see if it was feasible to carry out tests and monitoring on a larger scale to inform public health officials.
It worked, and now those efforts have expanded.
"The scope is different now," said Driscoll. "We will continue to test at the building level, but now we are shifting more towards the larger communities."
From a laboratory perspective, the testing process has been shortened from 16 hours to six hours due to the new pathogen testing laboratory in the biology department, he said.
"We are using a totally new process to concentrate viral particles out of wastewater," said Driscoll. “It uses magnetic beads that adhere to the viral particles. Then you simply remove all the liquid and only virus remains attached to the pearls. "
This is already proving useful. Several sites have shown recent increases in COVID-19, corresponding to the arrival of the delta variant in West Virginia.
The information is helping public health officials respond appropriately, Driscoll said.
The new process also offers the ability to test for influenza, RSV, HIV, and other viruses and is not limited to infectious diseases. Scientists can use it to detect signs of antibiotic resistance genes.
"Our team hopes to expand the initial wastewater analysis infrastructure to include other conditions of importance to West Virginia," said Brian Hendricks, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics in the School of Public Health, a co- project researcher.
“We strongly believe that wastewater monitoring is a very important part of public health, but requires tools that often involve complex methods that may not be available in state laboratories but are available in many universities like ours. , ” said Gordon Smith, another member of the team and Distinguished Professor of Stuart M. and Joyce N. Robbins at the School of Public Health. “The work that we are doing is a perfect example of a collaboration of a university with a land grant, with its mission to serve the state, and the people of the state. We have the scientific expertise to do the tests, interpret the results, and work with the state to put it into practice. "
Emily Garner, a co-investigator on the project and assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is conducting field sampling.
Using automatic samplers, researchers have the ability to program them to collect wastewater at certain intervals, he said. They were set every 20 minutes.
"Monitoring wastewater provides a powerful opportunity to get an early indicator of changes in the spread of COVID-19 at the community level," said . "Through this project, we will work to develop a test network in West Virginia to improve the usefulness of this approach as an early warning system for COVID-19 outbreaks in rural communities. ”