KU program tracing COVID-19 in wastewater provides early warning to Kansans of virus spread
LAWRENCE — The University of Kansas School of Engineering and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment have expanded a project to detect COVID-19 virus in the wastewater systems of local communities across the state.
The original project launched this spring looked for evidence of the virus in a dozen Kansas communities. This summer, that roster has expanded to 18 communities, including some in western Kansas. KU has also partnered with the City of Lawrence to test that city’s wastewater weekly.
“The idea is we can’t test everybody in our community,” said Belinda Sturm, associate vice chancellor for research and professor of civil, environmental & architectural engineering, “but we can test the catchment to see if COVID is present in our community, if it’s increasing or decreasing.”
In late April, Sturm began collecting samples from wastewater plants — ranging from big urban plants to small-town lagoon systems from around the state — using a test that looks for signs of the virus’ RNA. Studies from the Netherlands and Massachusetts suggest that such analyses can help local officials understand if the virus is present in their community — and if so, how widespread any outbreak might be.
The results so far: The wastewater sampling technique appears able to give Kansas researchers a one-week heads up that the coronavirus is surging in a community, before the case numbers and hospitalizations begin to officially rise.
“It’s a way for us to make sure the community is aware of the prevalence of COVID in the community,” Sturm said. “So that we are not responding after the spike, but preparing before the spike.”
But researchers and public health officials are still figuring out the best way to make use of the information, she added. ”Right now, the data is so new we have to get to the point where we know how to use it and have confidence in it.”
The preliminary results have been encouraging enough to warrant expanding the effort to other communities. The City of Lawrence plans to use the information to be ready for any increased demand on medical personnel, equipment and other health resources.
“The wastewater study is a great example of how our community is collaborating and using every tool in our toolbox to plan and prepare for fighting coronavirus,” said Sonia Jordan, director of informatics for Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health. “This study will help us make informed decisions moving forward, including related to staffing, bandwidth and surge capacity.”
Sturm began the project after KDHE reached out to her.
“I’ve worked with Professor Sturm on a lot of things — I knew she was on the cutting edge on a lot of issues regarding wastewater,” said Tom Stiles, who directs the Bureau of Water for KDHE. “She jumped right on in.”
One technical challenge, Sturm and Stiles said, is determining how sensitive the test is. Can it detect just a few cases in a large urban wastewater system? Can it give an accurate sense of how widespread an outbreak is in the community?
“We don’t want false negatives, and we don’t want false positives,” Sturm said. “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Sturm wanted to emphasize that observing viral RNA in wastewater does not imply that the wastewater is infectious. According to the Centers for Disease Control, researchers do not know whether this virus can cause disease if a person is exposed to untreated wastewater or sewage systems. There is no evidence to date that this has occurred.
KU and KDHE are sharing their results with other researchers nationwide in order to help develop best practices for detecting and fighting the virus. That should benefit the state of Kansas, Sturm and Stiles said.
“This is part of a wide initiative across the world,” Sturm said. “Across the US there are a lot of folks like me who are doing this, and we’re talking together. A lot of academics are exchanging knowledge right now, in real time — we usually wait to publish. From a science perspective, it’s really cool to see our scientific infrastructure respond to this crisis.”