Project begins testing sewage for COVID-19 across Michigan

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Researchers Becca Ives and Nishita D’Souza pull wastewater out of a manhole for sampling.

By Taylor Haelterman
Capital News Service

Michigan is searching the state’s sewers for the virus that causes COVID-19.

The $10 million pilot project could serve as an early alarm of spikes in the disease. And it represents the first time a coordinated statewide network of testing labs will be used to detect the virus in wastewater.

“When people become infected with the virus one of the first things that happens is they excrete the virus in feces in fairly large amounts,” said Shannon Briggs, a toxicologist with the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and a coordinator of the program. “This happens before any other symptoms typically are present.”

The results will be shared with local health departments so that they know where to keep an eye out for outbreaks.

The network consists of labs at universities, health agencies and wastewater treatment facilities, said Erin Dreelin, the associate director at the Michigan State University Center for Water Sciences who coordinates the program with Briggs.

Since Oct. 1 some labs have completed training and begun analyzing samples. Others have just completed training and will start analyzing samples soon.

Researchers learn the same equipment and testing methods so that they can compare results, Briggs said. Even slight variations can be problems for comparing results across the state.

“It’s kind of like making chocolate chip cookies,” Briggs said. “We could all have our own recipe on how to make a chocolate chip cookie and in the end, you’re going to get a chocolate chip cookie.

“But they’re going to be a little bit different.”

That’s where Joan Rose comes in. She leads the Michigan State University lab that does the training.

The wastewater is collected in a gallon jug, Rose said. At the lab, the protein from the virus particles is extracted from the sample. Researchers use a process that copies the protein so they can count it. That helps them understand how much of the virus was in the sample.

Rose’s lab in April began testing wastewater from the MSU campus and surrounding community. Researchers found the virus and could correlate its presence with the number of cases of COVID-19 reported nearby.

“We’re gaining more confidence about how we sample and get the results out quickly,” she said. “And now we’re trying to learn more about how to translate the virus signal back to what’s going on with the infection in the community.”

The virus in wastewater is no longer contagious. When it passes through the colon the virus comes out appearing to be damaged in some way so that it is no longer infectious, Rose said.

“There could still be some small percentages of virus that are alive in feces and wastewater, but it must be so low that we can’t detect it at this stage,” she said. “So that was good news because that means the virus is there, but it’s dead for the most part.”

Other labs elsewhere have begun monitoring wastewater to track the virus, but what is unique to Michigan is the connected approach to the problem, Briggs said. Wastewater testing in Michigan has been sporadic. It’s based on funding and access to equipment.

But this program brings local health departments, labs and partners in the wastewater industry into one collaborative statewide network.

The researchers could take this connected approach because many of the labs are part of a preexisting network focused on monitoring fecal contamination at beaches, Dreelin said.

The equipment and training can monitor anything that has DNA or RNA, two molecules present in nearly all living things, Briggs said. There is an unlimited ability for the labs to monitor wastewater for other diseases and substances after the project’s completion.

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