The way forward for tracking the second wave?
No, you aren’t dreaming this and you didn’t misread. Turns out wastewater treatment labs may have an important part to play in keeping tabs on the 2019 novel coronavirus as we look to reopen America — in fact the entire world. Authorities will want to be aware of any rise in cases, especially by region. But how can wastewater laboratories help?
It turns out that infected patients express the SARS-CoV-2 virus in their stools — whether or not they are displaying symptoms. If wastewater labs can develop good test methods for detecting evidence of the virus, reporting networks already in place could be leveraged to keep the CDC, government task force and any other appropriate bodies on top of surges or new outbreaks.
That’s the idea currently being pursued by water experts from around the world who gathered (virtually) April 30 for the Virtual International Water Research Summit on COVID-19, hosted by the Water Research Foundation, a One Water research and innovation organization.
The foundation has announced May 12 that as an immediate follow-on from the conference it is now in the process of issuing RFQs (Request for Qualifications) in three major areas:
1. Interlaboratory and Methods Assessment
This is about identifying the best, i.e. most appropriate methods in terms of implementation and standardization as well as viable economically and in effectiveness (accuracy). Any coordinated solution must be standardized so as to provide consistency in methodology and reporting — and meaningful statistics. There are a number of ways to test for coronavirus, from PCR-based to antibody detection, and WRF wants to choose the one(s) that make the most sense.
2. Stability of Genetic Signal in Wastewater Matrix
This goal is to keep track of how detectability may change over time and under different conditions. It includes the following components:
Dilution of the genetic signal in sewage
Loss of the genetic fingerprint while in transit in the collection system due to adsorption and degradation
Loss of the genetic fingerprint due to interference from other wastewater constituents
Effect of the wastewater treatment process on the genetic signal
3. Impact of Storage and Pre-Treatment Methods on Signal Strength
The third main area of concentration is related to the second, and also has to do with the viability of samples. But it also has to do with the safety of wastewater workers. The WRF intends to examine some current practices to determine effectiveness, including:
Heating wastewater samples to inactivate potentially live virus
Addition of chemicals to inactivate potentially viable pathogens in the wastewater samples
Storage of samples at 4°C, -20°C, -40°C, -80°C.
Respondents are likely to include those already active in laboratory informatics, and especially those with experience and/or qualifications in both water testing and coronavirus testing solutions. That would include the likes of
LabLynx, a trans-industry laboratory informatics company with clients in the water/wastewater testing industry, who also recently introduced a coronavirus-targeted lab software solution called CovidLIMS.
So don’t be too surprised in the coming months and years if you find that the CDC’s COVID-19 statistics references are…water treatment plants.