Testing wastewater for COVID-19 RNA delivers early information around infection rates, tracking hot spots and developing proactive mitigation strategies

March 29, 2021
testing wastewater for covid-19

It’s been nearly a year since quarantine began, and in that time there have been breakthroughs in rapid COVID-19 testing. However, problems in tracking COVID cases persist: many people are asymptomatic for days prior to suspecting they have COVID, increasing the chance of spreading the virus, and not all people get tested when they are symptomatic.

How can public health organizations better determine rates of COVID? At a number of locations across the country, something most people ignore has the answer.

AECOM, an infrastructure consulting firm, announced in December that they are working with a northern New Jersey county utilities authority and Columbia University to track COVID-19 rates through wastewater testing. The testing is done by checking for COVID-19 RNA in wastewater in the Bergen County Utilities Authority (BCUA) sewer shed.

“Testing for COVID-19 RNA, which can be secreted by infected individuals prior to the display of symptoms, in wastewater may deliver valuable, early information around trends in infection rates and provide advantages in tracking hot spots and developing proactive mitigation strategies,” states the AECOM news release.

The data resulting from the tests is fully anonymous but provides a picture of community health, which may inform when social distancing protocols or stay-at-home orders may need to be modified, alert health care providers to potential spikes in cases, and better target vaccination locations.

Existing wastewater testing in New Jersey involved collecting, testing, and analyzing more than 650 samples, with “results indicating that wastewater monitoring statistically provides a seven- to ten-day leading indicator of reported COVID-19 cases,” states the release.

Biobot Analytics, founded by an MIT doctoral student, started testing wastewater for COVID-19 as early as March 2020 across the country. In the early days of COVID, the results in some areas were staggering, as shown by wastewater testing in south central Pennsylvania.

“Results from the first two batches indicated the presence of COVID-19 in Dauphin County could actually be ten times higher than the number reported through official testing,” reported Christine Vendel for PennLive. “That’s because the wastewater method catches asymptomatic people and others who could not or did not get tested by health professionals.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) includes a section of their COVID-19 resources dedicated to wastewater surveillance. The CDC says that wastewater surveillance data complement other COVID-19 surveillance indicators that inform public health actions and is a helpful tool for providing data on higher-risk communities or where testing is underutilized.

With vaccines now being rolled out across the country and in increasing numbers, wastewater testing may also help provide information on the effectiveness of vaccine deployment, shares AECOM.

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