This story is part of a series on coronavirus research in the Midwest region
Researchers in the Midwest are looking in a surprising place for clues about the COVID-19 pandemic: wastewater.
Because so many people who are infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, scientists are interested in measuring the prevalence of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in wastewater as a way to understand the population-level spread of the virus in communities. In-person testing can be problematic for a variety of reasons, so researchers are interested in alternatives.
Minnesota Public Radio interviewed one research group that is exploring new ways to explore coronavirus spread without directly testing people. “We’ve decided that one of the easiest ways to do that would be to noninvasively kind of scan the population for the presence of the virus,” University of Minnesota professor Glenn Simmons Jr. said. “And one easy way of doing that would be to look at the wastewater.”
Simmons, along with his collaborator Richard Melvin at UMN Duluth, are testing samples collected from wastewater treatment facilities for the presence of genetic material from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Other researchers in the Midwest are working on similar sample collection, data analysis, and developing new tools and resources.
One resource under development is a publicly accessible, web-based Wastewater Pathogen Tracking Dashboard (WPTD). Dr. Rachel Spurbeck, research scientist at the non-profit Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus Ohio, leads the creation of this project.
“The WPTD program is tracking SARS-CoV-2 and other viral pathogens found in the wastewater of four different locations in Toledo, Ohio over time and comparing the sequencing results to the public health and demographic data for these sites”, Spurbeck said. “This comparison will be used to generate risk models for COVID-19 spread in the community as well as other viruses present. We will also be identifying mutations in SARS-CoV-2 which will not only tell us that the virus is in the communities being studied, but also if there are any differences in the virus that could enable identification of how the virus is affecting the population and where the virus came from geographically.”
The data collected will be entered into the Wastewater Pathogen Tracking Dashboard for use by local public health officials to aid in identifying where contact tracing will be most useful. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Since March 2020, the NSF has made hundreds of new awards focused on COVID-19 research to help address the pandemic. The NSF and the four regional Big Data Innovation Hubs collaborated on the creation of the COVID Information Commons resource to bring together information on these projects. Researchers can use the site to help find tools and resources, and to develop collaborations with other researchers.
Other wastewater tracking projects in the Midwest include two led by Kyle Bibby, Associate Professor of Engineering at Notre Dame university in Indiana. Bibby is leading an effort to develop methods to monitor for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater and to connect these measurements to epidemiology models. Bibby also leads a project to create a national Research Coordination Network (RCN) focused on wastewater surveillance, in collaboration with partners from Howard University, Stanford University, Arizona State University, and the Water Research Foundation.
At the national level, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced the development of a National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) that collects data from local, state, tribal, and territorial health departments to supplement the efforts above.
Contact the Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub if you’re aware of other projects we should include here, or to participate in any of our community-led Priority Areas.
The Midwest Big Data Innovation Hub is an NSF-funded partnership of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, Iowa State University, Indiana University, and the University of North Dakota, and is focused on developing collaborations in the 12-state Midwest region. Learn more about the NSF Big Data Hubs community.