MISSOULA — Laboratory samples taken from wastewater treatment facilities across the country could reveal the presence of COVID-19 in a community and signal a potential surge in infection rates, even before clinical cases arise.
Biobot Analytics, a wastewater epidemiology company based in Massachusetts, reached out to 400 cities in April, offering to demonstrate the new science and its value as a tool in detecting coronavirus.
Missoula agreed and sent four samples. The first three have turned up negative.
“We agreed to send four samples, one each week through the month of May to get a feeling of what’s happened in Missoula,” said Nate Gordon, the pretreatment manager at the city’s wastewater treatment facility. “All three samples were totally non detect. We haven’t seen any fragments in the wastewater yet. We’re waiting on the fourth week.”
Biobot analyzes fragments of genetic material that can reveal the presence of coronavirus in wastewater. It’s not the living virus, Gordon said, but rather fragments, and it can reveal how many fragments of the virus are in a city’s wastewater stream.
The company then works to correlate those numbers to clinical cases in a community and use it as predictive tool as to what may happen with future clinical cases.
“Research suggests that a signal of the virus in wastewater can appear about a week before you see clinical cases in the community,” said Gordon. “There is potential for this type of testing to be a canary in the coal mine, if you will, and let different communities know that a week from now, they might start seeing clinical cases.”
Biobot initially offered the testing on a pro bono basis, charging $120 per test when the going rate is normally $1,200. While the tool could prove effective, the city currently has no plans for future testing given the cost.
“We don’t have plans to move forward with this testing with Biobot at $1,200 per sample. That’s just not in anybody’s budget right now,” said Gordon. “Moving forward, we’ll have to decide if and when it makes sense for the community to put those kinds of resources toward this particular type of testing.”
While the samples to date have been negative, many health experts expect the virus to resurface later this year. It already has in several other Montana communities, including Billings and Bozeman.
Detecting coronavirus in the wastewater stream before it appears as a clinical case in the community could give health officials time to respond. And if the Missoula City-County Health Department ordered future tests, Gordon said, those tests would likely be covered by FEMA.
“If we did start to see a surge of copies of the virus in wastewater, it would indicate a higher possibility that we would see clinical cases,” he said. “You can also see copies of the virus from asymptomatic carriers.”
The city of Bozeman, which has seen more than 170 cases of the virus over the past few months, has worked on a similar testing measure with Montana State University. Fragments of the virus turned up early in Bozeman’s wastewater.
Members of the Missoula City Council said they’d like to explore similar options, possibly working with MSU.
“There’s a predictive aspect to what we could learn from sampling wastewater,” said City Council president Bryan von Lossberg. “Right now, I don’t know what sort of value that has, but I think all of us have eyes toward late summer, fall and winter, and early next year. Time has value. If we get information that gets us a week or two weeks ahead of an outbreak or a spike, there’s tremendous value in getting ahead.”