State of Indiana, 120Water study provides powerful data stream to help communities fight the virus
By Matt Boes, Water World
120Water, a digital water platform in use at more than 180,000 sample sites across the nation, completed a sweeping pilot study that monitored wastewater in the state of Indiana for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The study – one of the most comprehensive in the nation – validated that wastewater monitoring mirrors clinical testing for the virus, while producing a powerful data stream that can help public health officials make decisions for fighting the virus.
“We know that COVID-19 is endemic, meaning that it isn’t likely to vanish entirely even with a vaccine,” said Kyle Bibby, PhD, associate professor and Wanzek Collegiate Chair, Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences at University of Notre Dame. “This study is exciting because it shows that wastewater monitoring can be a useful, ongoing strategy to identify community flare-ups of COVID-19 and other diseases so health officials can quickly mobilize testing, education and vaccination efforts.”
Wastewater systems collect the aggregate microbiomes of a community, which in turn can provide valuable information about public health conditions quickly and anonymously. For an infectious disease like COVID-19, wastewater monitoring is especially helpful because it can detect disease trends in a community with residents who are asymptomatic and those who have not been clinically tested. These viral detections can show the presence of the disease as well as prevalence trends without testing and reporting lags.
The study supported 14 communities in sampling wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 RNA beginning in August 2020. Participating wastewater utilities served public or private universities that provided student housing, and also monitored other vulnerable locations, including prisons and low-income housing. 120Water set up a network of surveillance hubs across the state in just three weeks. Research partners at the University of Notre Dame provided technical guidance, and conducted intra-laboratory analysis of wastewater samples from lab partner Microbac.
Wastewater testing has been around for decades to safely monitor communities for such things as disease, illicit drug use and antibiotic resistance, according to Bibby, noting that wastewater does not contain the live COVID-19 virus and is not present in drinking water.
“This study is different from other COVID wastewater studies because it produced a one-of-a-kind data stream over a relatively short amount of time, and the data was integrated among multiple labs. The more data we have, the more we can learn.”
The 120Water study is one of the largest studies completed to-date by volume of sites, and included a variety of monitoring sites, such as sewer sheds and site-specific lift stations. Unlike other studies that monitored once per week, the 120Water study monitored sites three times a week.
120Water was selected to manage the monitoring program because the company’s modern sample management platform could scale to meet more frequent testing, according to Megan Glover, CEO of 120Water.
“More frequent testing means that trends can be spotted earlier, and speed is of the essence when it comes to viruses like COVID-19,” said Glover. Future monitoring programs will have access to 120Water’s live dashboard, which makes test results available in real-time.
The city of Muncie, IN, was one of the municipalities that participated in the study.
“We were intrigued with wastewater testing as an unbiased method for seeing what’s happening in the community, even if people are not getting tested,” said Rick Conrad, director, Muncie Bureau of Water Quality.
The Bureau tested at three different dormitories, and was able to see that one showed no COVID-19 infection.
“That data helped health officials focus their resources elsewhere,” he said. In the future, Conrad sees wastewater testing being employed to identify hotspots for various diseases and illicit drug use, so health efforts can be positioned where needed.
Bibby agrees that wastewater monitoring will be beneficial beyond the current pandemic and as communities begin to roll out vaccinations.
“Wastewater monitoring doesn’t replace clinical testing, but can provide an independent data stream to refine and speed up decision making for other diseases, including norovirus, influenza and even the next pandemic,” said Bibby.
“We are excited about the results of this study and the future applications as vaccines begin to roll out,” said Glover. “Data from these efforts can give health officials the ability to track the effectiveness of vaccines and better understand what’s happening in the community – especially around vulnerable populations – so targeted steps can be taken.”