In the ongoing battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, Keene State College is exploring an unlikely addition to its arsenal: sewage.
The college is working on a plan to test wastewater for the presence of the novel coronavirus, which could serve as an early warning sign of a spike in the number of cases, both on campus and in the community.
“Once you get an idea of what the baseline is, if you see a trend that’s rising ... it’s [an] early warning system,” Associate Professor of Public Health Jeanelle Boyer, who is helping lead the project, said. “And hopefully you can implement some measures that would reduce the spread of the virus before it has a chance to spread faster.
“So, since the virus tends to spread exponentially, if you can get a week, that could be hundreds of cases,” she continued. “It really could make a big difference.”
The plan, which would involve testing samples from sewer lines that serve a broad swath of the student and city population, still needs approval from both Keene State and the city, since researchers would need access to Keene’s sewage lines. But, Boyer said, if the project gets the green light, it could be up and running by the fall, and would yield usable results almost immediately.
Keene State students are scheduled to return to campus in two waves the week of Aug. 24.
“Once we get the first two weeks of a baseline set to see what is normal, we could start to see some fluctuations this fall, potentially right away,” she said.
Boyer added that the current research indicates wastewater-based epidemiology, the technique’s scientific name, can alert communities to COVID-19’s presence up to two weeks before infected people would begin presenting symptoms. That sort of early indication could give the college, and entire community, valuable information, said Wayne Hartz, a professor of safety and occupational health applied sciences, who is also leading the project.
“Regular water testing provides another avenue of information through which the college and city can assess the risk within our population,” Hartz said in a statement. “It is another layer of protection for the college community and Keene residents.”
The data collected through wastewater testing could, for instance, help city and college officials inform their deployment of resources to fight the virus, such as individual tests.
“I don’t want to say that you would do this instead of testing individuals, but they work well together,” Boyer said. “So what I would envision is ... doing this as monitoring, and then if you would see a spike, then that would warrant doing more individual testing to try to narrow down and find the individuals who actually have it. And then you could implement contact tracing and isolation and quarantine — these other measures are known, effective public health responses to the virus.”
The process for testing wastewater is fairly straightforward, Boyer added. Researchers already know that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be shed in fecal matter, so the city would just need to collect small samples of wastewater and send them to a commercial lab, which would test the samples using essentially the same technique as individual tests.
For the first two weeks, daily samples would be required to establish a baseline for the virus’ presence in the community. After that, researchers would need to test samples only once or twice a week to monitor for potential spikes.
Right now, Boyer said, the college is looking at taking samples from two points on the city’s sewer line, one which would give a sample of the community overall, and another that would focus on Keene State’s campus and the surrounding neighborhood, where many students live.
“We really see this as a great possibility to work together with the city, because the city and the campus are really so intertwined,” she said. “Our students are out there in the community, the community comes to campus. And especially with something like a contagious disease ... if we have cases on campus, it could potentially impact the community, and if we have cases in the community, it could impact the campus.”
The current proposal involves Keene State providing most of the funding for the project, while the city would collect and send the wastewater samples, Boyer said. Keene State spokeswoman Kelly Ricaurte said Thursday the college estimates the project would cost between $52,000 and $60,000.
In the long run, though, wastewater testing could reduce overall costs, since it would allow college and city leaders to be more prepared and deliberate in their response to COVID-19, Boyer said.
“The earlier response you have, the more proactive you can be in your measures and your response to the pandemic,” she said. “So I could see this potentially giving us a little time in terms of knowing if the virus is in the community. And I could also see it, in the long term, potentially saving money.
“It might relieve some of the burden on testing so many individuals,” she continued. “And we couldn’t get away from that completely, but instead of testing whole populations individually, we could monitor with wastewater and then test in targeted ways when needed.”
Wastewater-based epidemiology is not new, Boyer added, nor is it unique to the United States. Countries such as Australia and France have used the technique to look out for infectious diseases in their populations, Boyer said. Israel used it to detect and quell a polio outbreak in 2013, according to the World Health Organization.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, more countries and communities around the world are looking to implement sewage testing. In a June 12 article in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, a group of 60 scientists called for “a global effort to coordinate methodologies and data-sharing to maximize the yields of [wastewater-based epidemiology] for the current and future outbreaks of disease.”
Closer to home, wastewater from Boston and 42 other eastern Massachusetts communities is now being tested for COVID-19, the Boston Globe reported Wednesday.
“It’s definitely picking up speed throughout the world and the country,” Boyer said of the technique.
And if Keene State and the city join this growing trend, Boyer added, the technique could be a valuable resource both during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
“I think [wastewater testing] hasn’t been capitalized upon,” she said. “I think it’s something that might even be useful for other outbreaks in the future, if communities get a system up and running.”