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UT Austin researchers resume testing wastewater for COVID-19

Researchers say continuing to monitor the wastewater will give Austin advance knowledge of any spikes in COVID-19 cases.

AUSTIN, Texas — Editor's note: The above video was published in September 2020.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have resumed testing wastewater for signs of COVID-19 after receiving new funding from the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM).

Mary Jo Kirisits with the Cockrell School of Engineering said that although Austin's COVID-19 risk-based guidelines have been eliminated, continuing to monitor the wastewater will give the city advance knowledge of any spikes in COVID-19 cases. She said that would be beneficial as fewer people are getting testing or reporting positive results.

“People are going to get complacent and let their guard down,” said Kirisits, a professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering (CAEE). “Testing wastewater as a normal course of action will give the city lead time in making important decisions, like when to provide more resources such as testing sites and vaccine hubs.”

Because SARS-CoV-2 is a fecal-shed virus, Kirisits and a team of researchers began taking samples from Austin's two largest wastewater treatment plants staring in summer 2020. They hoped to be able to track case spikes before they showed up in diagnostic testing.

RELATED: Your poop is helping UT Austin researchers predict COVID-19 spikes

UT reports that although wastewater monitoring generally indicated spikes in clinical case a few days before they occurred, the testing didn't give the two-week lead time the researchers were hoping for. However, this might change as cases wane and fewer COVID-19 tests are administered.

"The only way to get that two-week advance notice is when the cases are so low you can spot a difference," said Kerry Kinney, another CAEE professor. “It will be interesting doing monitoring going forward to see when cases rise. At this point, we haven’t gotten out of the pandemic to monitor for its resurgence.”

UT said initial funding for the project was provided by the Cockrell School and two research challenge grants, Planet Texas 2050 and Whole Communities–Whole Health. When that money ran out last fall, further testing was put on hold.

However, Kirisits continued to go out to the treatment plants most days during the winter, collecting samples to be sure that when the team did get more funding, they would be able to record the surge in omicron cases that happened around the holidays.

Now the team has received a $150,000 grant from TDEM to resume their work.

UT said that sampling is ongoing at the Walnut Creek and South Austin Regional wastewater treatment plants. Specimens 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 providers to know what to look for and when to test," UT said.

The research team also plans to deploy 3D-printed sampling devices at several sites on the UT campus to tell whether specific buildings or residence halls are seeing case spikes. The devices can be dropped into maintenance holes for sampling over a specific period to monitor for the virus in certain locations. According to UT, the devices are not expensive to make and don't require a power source during deployment, making them convenient for sampling.

Kirisits said that wastewater is also useful for tracking other pathogens and disease markers, including for diabetes, so ongoing research is a crucial tool for public health.

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