A team of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin has resumed testing Austin’s wastewater for signals about COVID-19 after the Texas Division of Emergency Management provided new funding for the project.
Although Austin’s risk-based COVID-19 guidelines have now been eliminated, Mary Jo Kirisits of the Cockrell School of Engineering said continued monitoring of wastewater will give the city prior knowledge of any increases in cases, which is beneficial as fewer people get tested or reported positive results .
“People are going to become complacent and fail their guard,” said Kirisits, a professor at the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering. “Testing wastewater as a normal approach will give the city leading time to make important decisions, such as when more resources need to be made available, such as test sites and vaccine hubs.”
The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is a fecal-shed virus. Knowing this, Kirisits and a team of researchers began taking samples from the city’s two largest wastewater treatment plants from the summer of 2020 with the goal of being able to track peaks of cases in Austin before appearing in diagnostic tests.
Although wastewater monitoring generally indicated increases in clinical cases a few days before they occurred, the test did not provide the desired two-week delivery time. This may change as cases subside and fewer COVID-19 tests are administered.
“The only way to get it two weeks’ notice is when things are so low that you can see a difference,” said Kerry Kinney, a professor at the Department of Civil, Architecture and Environmental Engineering. “It will be interesting to monitor going forward to see when cases arise. At this point, we have not come out of the pandemic to monitor its resurgence.”
The initial funding for the project was provided by Cockrell School and two major research challenges at UT Austin – Planet Texas 2050 and Whole Communities-Whole Health. But when the money ran out in the fall of 2021, further testing was put on hold.
Despite this, the Kirisits still went out to the treatment plants most days during the winter and collected samples to make sure that when they received additional funding, they would be able to record the increase in omicron cases that happened around the holidays.
The Texas Division of Emergency Management has awarded the team a $ 150,000 grant to resume its work.
Sampling is currently underway at Walnut Creek and South Austin’s regional wastewater treatment plants. The samples will be sent to Biota Technology for sequencing and “variant calling”, which means that the percentage of SARS-CoV-2 in each variant class will be determined. Since the variants have some differences in associated symptoms, and some variants are more contagious than others, this will allow residents and health care professionals to know what to look for and when to test.
The research team also plans to implement 3D-printed sampling units at multiple locations on the UT Austin campus to be able to tell if specific buildings or residences are looking peaked. These devices can be placed in maintenance holes for sampling over a period of time to monitor for viruses in specific locations. These devices are inexpensive to make and do not require a power source during installation, making them convenient for sampling.
Kirisits said wastewater is also useful in tracking other pathogens and disease markers, including for diabetes, so ongoing research is a crucial tool for public health.
“There are so many things we can track in wastewater, and we should do that,” she said. “Once you have these samples, you might as well ask for more markers associated with human disease.”