Scientists at the University of Oklahoma said analyzing sewage water and human waste could predict an outbreak of COVID-19 five to seven days ahead of time.
Since October, researchers at the OU Health Sciences Center have collected wastewater samples from manholes and water treatment plants across Oklahoma City.
“We can look and see which parts of Oklahoma City are hotspots. Ever since we’ve been looking, we’ve found (traces of COVID-19)”, said Dr. Jason Vogel, an OU Professor and the coordinator for sample collection. “When someone has COVID, they will shed coronavirus… in their feces.”
Dr. Vogel and a team of researchers have collected wastewater samples from 14 different sites multiple times a week.
The joint study between the University of Oklahoma and OU Health was funded with $535,000 of Oklahoma City’s CARES Act funding.
Dr. Katrin Kuhn of the OU Health Sciences Center is leading the analysis of the samples. The Danish expert on food and water-borne disease surveillance moved to Oklahoma last year.
“Sewage is actually seven days ahead of the cases that are reported,” Dr. Kuhn said. “By looking at just the concentrations in the sewage, we have a whole week advanced warning, which is really great for predicting outbreaks.”
Accounting for time to test the samples and analyze levels of the virus, Dr. Kuhn said wastewater could give a five-to-seven day notice of an outbreak or decrease of COVID-19 in a sewage district.
Dr. Kuhn said wastewater analysis provides scientists and health officials with reliable, large-scale testing that does not require voluntary compliance normally associated with testing, like showing up to a doctor’s office for a nasal swab.
“We know that a lot of people are asymptomatic, so they don’t feel maybe the need to go get tested, even though they have known exposure and known contact with positive persons,” Dr. Kuhn said.
The Oklahoma City-County Health Department has used wastewater analysis to plan testing efforts, according to chief operating officer Phil Maytubby. He said information from sewage could influence the department’s rollout of the vaccine, as well.
Maytubby said a robust and sophisticated wastewater testing system could be useful well beyond COVID-19.
“If we have a bioterrorism incident, or if we have some other novel virus, we’ll already be set up to do it,” Maytubby said. “This is something that’s not only good for now, but it’s going to be good for the future.”