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Scientists Test State's Wastewater To Learn Where Coronavirus Could Strike Next

Shu Yu Hsu analyzes a wastewater sample to determine its coroanvirus concentration at the University of Missouri lab where she works.
Marc Johnson | University of Missouri
Shu Yu Hsu analyzes a wastewater sample to determine its coroanvirus concentration at the University of Missouri lab where she works.

Missouri health and environmental officials will soon test wastewater statewide to determine where and when coronavirus outbreaks could occur. 

Researchers have been testing wastewater for the coronavirus at several sites in St. Louis and Springfield since late May and are expanding the program to 64 more sites statewide starting this week.

Wastewater contains genetic remnants of the coronavirus. Monitoring sewage will allow state and local health departments to know which communities could be susceptible to a large outbreak before many residents start showing symptoms, said Marc Johnson, a molecular biologist and professor at the University of Missouri.

“People are shedding the virus before they probably have symptoms even, so theoretically you can detect it in the wastewater five or six days before a person walks into a clinic if there’s an acute outbreak,” Johnson said. “In the very least, we’ll give every community a reality check of where they’re going to be in five days.”

Couriers will send wastewater samples to state officials in Jefferson City, who will deliver the samples to a lab at the University of Missouri-Columbia for weekly testing. The data will then be shared with local health departments.

People who have caught the coronavirus might not show symptoms for several days. But they swallow their infected mucus, and it travels through their digestive system, Johnson said. Although wastewater and feces haven’t been shown to contain dangerous amounts of active virus, an infected person’s waste contains large amounts of genetic viral material.

The wastewater can’t show how many people are sick with the coronavirus, but it can show if the virus is spreading, said Mizzou professor Chung-Ho Lin, lead scientist in charge of bioremediation and natural products research programs at the Center for Agroforestry in the School of Natural Resources. 

“In this case, by knowing this concentration of COVID, we know how quick, how fast this is spreading in the community, said Lin, whose lab is testing the specimens.If local health departments see increasing amounts of genetic material, they can take action to contain the virus more quickly, said Chris Wieberg, director of the DNR’s water protection program.

“Maybe it sparks the need for more community testing,” he said. “Maybe it sparks the need for evaluating a specific congregant facility within a small community like a prison or health care institution."

Local health departments could also use the information to reinstate limits on businesses to reduce transmission.

Wieberg hopes the data eventually will be published on a public website so that Missourians can see the weekly data in real time, he said. The state will continue testing up to 80 sites for one year.

Using wastewater to conduct disease surveillance is consistently cheaper and more effective than conducting large-scale human testing, Lin said.

“One bottle of water, that can show the story of a whole community,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Chung-Ho Lin's job title. 

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Copyright 2020 St. Louis Public Radio

Sarah Fentem reports on sickness and health as part of St. Louis Public Radio’s news team. She previously spent five years reporting for different NPR stations in Indiana, immersing herself deep, deep into an insurance policy beat from which she may never fully recover. A longitme NPR listener, she grew up hearing WQUB in Quincy, Illinois, which is now owned by STLPR. She lives in the Kingshighway Hills neighborhood, and in her spare time likes to watch old sitcoms, meticulously clean and organize her home and go on outdoor adventures with her fiancé Elliot. She has a cat, Lil Rock, and a dog, Ginger.