Tracking COVID-19 in San Antonio sewers can help control COVID’s spread
Tracking COVID-19 in San Antonio sewers can help control COVID’s spread

Tracking COVID-19 in San Antonio sewers can help control COVID’s spread

COVID-19 test clinics around the country are closing, and federal funding for free clinical trials is running out. But wastewater monitoring could step in to play a crucial role in keeping track of where the virus is and how much is really circulating out there, according to two San Antonio professors who have been working on COVID wastewater monitoring since the early pandemic.

Dr. Vikram Kapoor is assistant professor in The School of Building and Environmental Engineering and Construction Management on UTSA. He is the lead author of one examination of COVID-19 in wastewater in Bexar County, who found that this type of monitoring is an effective tool for determining trends in the incidence of infectious diseases and providing additional information for clinical trials.

Kapoor also concluded that you could use wastewater monitoring to try to get ahead of COVID.

“We call it a leading indicator of surveillance because it can predict before the infection starts spreading. Before people start getting symptoms before being tested, they will start secreting the virus in the stool,” Kapoor said. “So if all the people who are infected they excrete the virus, there is a chance that we can intercept that signal days or even a week before they are actually tested.”

Bonnie Petrie

/

Texas Public Radio

Dr. Vikram Kapoor and a student are preparing to test a wastewater sample for COVID-19.

Researchers tracking COVID in wastewater in New York City found the same thing. Dr. Davida Smyth is now an associate professor of microbiology at Texas A&M San Antoniobut she was working in New York when the pandemic started.

They checked the wastewater for COVID and then sequenced what they found to see what variants were there.

“I think the first proof we had that it was really predictive was when Omicron emerged,” Smyth said. “We were actually able to show that it came before (it appeared in) people. So it proved that it actually worked.”

Smyth believes that communities around the world could use this technique to come up with new variants and potential increases and to fight the virus more effectively and efficiently.

“The data from wastewater gives you maybe two weeks of lead time and what’s actually going to show up in the human population,” she said. “So you can say to yourself, ‘Well, there’s a new variant,’ and you can actually look and see where it’s in town and say, ‘Well, that’s where it’s popping up.”

Then, Smyth said, you could target mask wearing and other interventions against the specific area, which would be more effective than locking entire cities.

Smyth and Kapoor plan to work together to build a surveillance and sequencing program in South Texas, but so far it is slow. They have trouble accessing new samples to test, and funding is always in short supply.

Centers for Disease Control has created and dashboard where states can report the results of their wastewater monitoring, but right now only about a dozen states send information. Texas is among them, but only a handful of plants in the Houston area are currently participating.

Related: Wastewater tests can help control the spread of COVID. Why is it not happening all over America?

Raw wastewater flows from the homes and businesses of 23,000 customers in Converse, TX, to a wastewater treatment plant owned by the San Antonio River Authority.  It is from this location at the factory that samples have been collected for COVID testing at UTSA.

Bonnie Petrie

/

Texas public radio

Raw wastewater flows from the homes and businesses of 23,000 customers in Converse, TX, to a wastewater treatment plant owned by the San Antonio River Authority. It is from this location at the factory that samples have been collected for COVID testing at UTSA.



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