By Laura Gardner, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology ‘22
Author’s Note: With so much information in the media and online about COVID-19, I find many people get lost in, and fall victim to, false information. I want to reassure the Davis community with factual information on how Davis is fighting COVID-19. With UC Davis’ strong scientific community, I was curious what tools were being used to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. In January 2021, I attended a virtual COVID-19 symposium called Questions about Tests and Vaccines led by Walter S Leal, distinguished Professor of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at University of California-Davis (UC Davis). In this symposium, I learned about Dr. Heather Bischel’s work testing the sewer system. This testing is another source for early detection of COVID-19. In combination with biweekly testing, I have no doubt that UC Davis is being proactive in their precautions throughout the pandemic, which made me personally feel more safe. I hope that this article will shed light on wastewater epidemiology as a tool that can be implemented elsewhere.
Dr. Heather Bischel is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Davis. Bischel has teamed up with the city of Davis through the Healthy Davis Together initiative to use wastewater epidemiology, a technique for measuring chemicals in wastewater, to monitor the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 . When a person defecates, their waste travels through the pipes and is collected in the sewer system. In both pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals, their feces will carry the genetic material that indicates the virus is present. This is because SARS-CoV-2 uses angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, also known as ACE2, as a cellular receptor, which is abundantly expressed in the small intestine allowing viral replication in the gastrointestinal tract . This serves as an early indicator of a possible COVID-19 outbreak and leads to quick treatment and isolation, which are important to stop the spread of the disease.
Samples are taken periodically from manholes around campus using a mechanical device called an autosampler. These autosamplers are lowered into manholes to collect wastewater flow samples every 15 minutes for 24 hours. Next, the samples are taken to the lab where they are able to extract genetic material and use Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) to detect the virus. Chemical markers that attach to the specific genetic sequence of the virus are added to the sample, which reacts to the COVID-19 virus by fluorescing visible light. This light is the signal that indicates positive test results.
The samples are collected throughout campus, with a focus on residential halls. An infected person will excrete the virus through their bowel movements before showing symptoms. The samples are so sensitive that if even just one person among thousands is sick, they are still able to detect the presence of COVID-19 genetic material. When a PCR test provides a positive signal, the program works closely with the UC Davis campus to identify if there has been someone who has reported a positive COVID-19 test. If no one from the building is known to be positive, they send out a communication email asking all the students of the building to get tested as soon as possible. That way the infected person can be identified and isolated as soon as possible, eliminating exposure from unidentified cases .
In collaboration with the UC Davis campus as well as the city of Davis, Dr. Bische has implemented wastewater epidemiology throughout the community. Since summer 2020, Dr. Bische’s team of researchers have collected data which is available online through the Healthy Davis Together initiative .
In addition to being an early indicator, this data has also been used to determine trends, which can indicate if existing efforts to combat the virus are working or not . Existing efforts include vaccinations, mask wearing, washing hands, maintaining proper social distancing, and staying home when one feels ill. UC Davis has implemented protocols including biweekly testing and a daily symptom survey that must be completed and approved in order to be on campus.
Wastewater epidemiology has been implemented all over the world, at more than 233 Universities and in 50 different countries, according to monitoring efforts from UC Merced . This testing has been used in the past to detect polio, but has never before been implemented on the scale of a global pandemic. Lacking infrastructure, such as ineffective waste disposal systems, open defecation, and poor sanitation pose global challenges, especially in developing countries . Without tools for early detection, these communities are in danger of having an exponential rise in cases.
“Our work enables data-driven decision-making using wastewater infrastructure at city, neighborhood, and building scales,” Dr. Bische stated proudly in her latest blog post . These decisions are crucial in confining COVID-19 as we continue to push through the pandemic.
Summary of how wastewater epidemiology is used to fight COVID-19
- Aguiar-Oliveira, Maria de Lourdes et al. “Wastewater-Based Epidemiology (WBE) and Viral Detection in Polluted Surface Water: A Valuable Tool for COVID-19 Surveillance-A Brief Review.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 17,24 9251. 10 Dec. 2020, doi:10.3390/ijerph17249251
- Bischel, Heather. Catching up with our public-facing COVID-19 wastewater research. Accessed August 15, 2021.Available from H.Bischel.faculty.ucdavis
- Deepshikha Pandey, Shelly Verma, Priyanka Verma,et al. SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater: Challenges for developing countries, International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health,Volume 231,2021,113634, ISSN 1438-4639, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijheh.2020.113634.
- Healthy Davis Together. Accessed February 2, 2021. Available from Healthy Davis Together – Working to prevent COVID-19 in Davis
- UCMerced Researchers. Covid Poops Summary of Global SARS-CoV-2 Wastewater Monitoring Efforts. Accessed February 2, 2021. Available from COVIDPoops19 (arcgis.com)
- Walter S Leal. January 13, 2021. COVID symposium Questions about Tests and Vaccines. Live stream online on zoom.