‘Wastewater never lies’: How two MU professors are finding COVID-19 virus in Missouri sewage

An MU project surveils Missouri wastewater for COVID-19 virus remnants but is unable to pinpoint the virus’ presence on campus.

Researchers at MU are analyzing sewage samples across the state to detect remnants of the virus that causes COVID-19. The findings from this research are used for the state’s Public Health Dashboard, https://showmestrong.mo.gov/data/public-health/ to measure the prevalence of the COVID-19 virus in areas of Missouri.

Dr. Marc Johnson, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology, and Dr. Chung-Ho Lin, a research associate professor at the MU Center for Agroforestry are leading this project.

“The wastewater never lies,” Lin said. “It will generate a lot of information to help us understand the well-being of the society, the behavior and socioeconomic status. You would be surprised.”

Lin said that they have found a higher concentration of antidepressant drugs in Columbia during the pandemic. He attributes this to the uncertainty of the pandemic and a possible increase in financial or mental stress.

How It Works

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources collaborates with the state agencies and approximately 63 communities to make sure that the samples are collected and shipped. Johnson’s lab extracts RNA from the samples. Lin then processes the RNA using a technique called RT-qPCR to quantify the copy numbers of the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, in the wastewater. The Department of Health & Senior Services takes the data from there.

“They do some further analysis on it and they immediately communicate it to the county health departments as well as the facilities where samples were taken from,” Johnson said. “Within about a week it goes on to this public dashboard.”

This form of testing is very accurate for determining whether COVID-19 virus remnants are present in wastewater. However, it gets trickier when it comes to determining the quantity that is present. Johnson said that factors like rain and detergent can affect those numbers.

“If there's twice as much water flowing into the sewage that day, then the concentration of viral RNA is going to be half as much,” Johnson said.

The testing surveys areas rather than pinpointing the presence of the COVID-19 virus in individual households.

“We haven't ever gotten to that point where we had to worry about privacy,” Johnson said. “I couldn't tell you who was infected if I wanted to.”

While Johnson and Lin are only measuring the prevalence of the COVID-19 virus in areas of Missouri right now, they plan to start surveilling the wastewater for new variants.

“As far as the [detection] of the variants, [that testing] should be pretty accurate once we get it up and running,” Johnson said. “We'll actually sequence it. So, we'll be reading the sequence as it comes off.”

Wastewater testing on campus

While the wastewater testing takes samples from Columbia’s sewers, MU’s wastewater is not currently being tested exclusively .

“We did it for a few months in the fall, but then we had to redirect our efforts,” Johnson said. “It was too much work for too little payoff.”

The termination of exclusive testing of campus wastewater is due to MU’s complex sewage system. Johnson said that many of the dorms on campus have sewage flowing in three different directions, making it difficult to pinpoint the presence of the COVID-19 virus to individual dorms.

“We were sampling at four different sites that were clusters of dorms,” Johnson said. “We would see these giant shifts from day to day. But when students find out they're sick, what do they do? They either find a way to isolate or, most of them, go home. That signal just disappears and it's hard to really nail that down.”

Another issue that Johnson and Lin faced while testing MU’s wastewater was University Hospital, whose sewage flows into MU’s sewage system.

“If I wanted to capture all of the university, I would have to capture about eight different spots,” Johnson said. “Then it would be mixed with the hospital and the hospital has patients from everywhere, so it'd be really hard to sort out.”

Johnson and Lin shared the information from the original sewage testing on campus with MU. However, Johnson said that it just confirmed what they already knew.

“We’re always reviewing and examining various tools for the vast amount of services we provide,” MU spokesperson Christian Basi said. “When we examine one and realize that it won’t work for our specific situation, we move on and look at other potential tools.”

The Scientists Behind the Data

Johnson and Lin didn’t meet in person until after they had been working together for three months. Now, Johnson refers to Lin as his “partner in crime.”

“I [didn’t] meet Marc Johnson in-person until probably July,” Lin said. “But we were able to be creative enough to get the whole project off the ground, even before we had a chance to see each other.”

That creativity sets in at opposite ends of the day for this pair. While Johnson prefers to work early in the day, Lin said he feels more productive in the evening.

“Sometimes [Johnson] would wake up at three or four o'clock and he would send me an email,” Lin said. “That was about the time I was ready to go to bed… It is a perfect match because, for this project, we do need to have a schedule where we work around the clock.”

Beyond the Pandemic

Johnson doesn’t see the need for this testing going away after the pandemic is over. He thinks that health departments will want to apply it to other viruses.

“I have kids and it always drives me nuts when they get sick and we take them to the clinic and they say [the kids] got a virus,” Johnson said. “I’m a virologist, dammit! There are like 40 viruses that can cause this disease. Can you be more specific?”

With the technology from Johnson and Lin’s testing, it would be possible to determine the types of viruses circulating in a community.

“It may or may not make any difference on how you treat them,” Johnson said. “But between knowing and not knowing, I prefer to know.”

For now, Johnson and Lin are focused on the COVID-19 virus. They just received a grant to expand their research from the National Institutes of Health. They hope to learn more about the distribution of RNA over the course of infection.

“Eventually what we would like to be able to do is take a sample and say, ‘Okay, you probably have about 20 new patients,’” Johnson said. “We're not there yet, but we're getting closer.”

Lin sees this project as proof of the importance of science and higher education. He thinks that groups should invest more in the university.

“A lot of projects will take years before the discoveries can benefit the community,” Lin said. “But for this project, we know the community can immediately benefit from our discovery… They don't realize how much we can do to help the society. This is a perfect example.”

Edited by Eli Hoff | ehoff@themaneater.com

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