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Sewer Smarts 

OSU and OHA are monitoring sewer water to monitor competing COVID variants


Over 700 million COVID tests have been performed in the United States as of late November—more than 8 million in Oregon, and while testing is invaluable to monitor the spread of COVID, it requires individuals to get tested. On the other hand, everyone poops, and that poop can help understand broad COVID trends. 


Oregon State University in partnership with the Oregon Health Authority has been testing wastewater throughout the pandemic to better understand the viral spread in communities, especially as variants outcompete the original COVID virus to the point that it’s nearly extinct in the United States. Regional water treatment plants collect and send wastewater samples to OSU twice a week for testing. 


“Right now we have over 40 wastewater treatment plants across the state participating in our surveillance network,” said Tyler Radneicki, an Associate Professor at OSU and the TRACE COVID-19 Sewer Surveillance Lead. “Our goal is to have at least one wastewater treatment plant in every county in the state and we're pretty close to that.” 

click to enlarge Wastewater testing equipment is installed in a manhole to track broad COVID trends. - OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY
  • Oregon State University
  • Wastewater testing equipment is installed in a manhole to track broad COVID trends.
The data collected can’t present a precise number of infections in a community, though there is ongoing research regarding the quantification of wastewater data, but it can give a general understanding of COVID trends in a community. Radneicki said that there’s enough research to suggest that concentration of the virus in wastewater is correlated with the number of cases in a community.  


“The advantage of wastewater surveillance is that each time we take a single sample from a wastewater treatment plant, what we are doing is we are getting health data on every individual in the community in one sample,” Radneicki said. “So it's a very noninvasive sampling routine, and that's probably its biggest strength.” 


Thanks to OSU’s Center for Quantitative Life Sciences, OSU can detect variants in wastewater testing.  


“We've used it successfully in the past to track the arrival of the alpha variant, also known as the UK variant. And we used it as well for delta variant and now omicron is the next one on our radar,” Radneicki said. 


The delta variant of COVID has made up over 95% of Oregon cases since August, and before that it gradually grew as cases of the less effective alpha, gamma and other variants shrunk. Omicron hasn’t been detected in Oregon yet, but the state’s epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger said it was only a matter of time before it appeared. The prevalence of a variant is measured in what is called “reads.” 


“We saw this with alpha and delta. It was all alpha for a long time and then delta came along. What happened is the number of reads for alpha in a given sample went down while the number of reads and delta went up. And then they eventually just replaced each other,” Radneicki said. “That may happen with omicron; we're going to keep an eye on that.” 


Wastewater testing can cover large populations, collecting data on all patrons of a wastewater treatment plant, but it also can be tailored narrowly. Specific neighborhoods can be singled out for testing, and at OSU campuses even individual buildings are being monitored. Radneicki said the expanded use of wastewater testing goes beyond how it has been used before, especially with polymerase chain reaction tests that are less labor intensive than traditional methods. 


“It was it was first used to track polio and was used very successfully to find and eradicate polio in countries across the globe, including the United States,” he said. “Countries such as Israel were using this technology in the ‘80s, to still track down polio. And there were Scandinavian countries in the early 2000s, that were using it to track things such as influenza outbreaks. So it's been used. It does have a history and has been used a bit here and there, across the world. But now with COVID-19, it's really seen a reemergence.”  

About The Author

Jack Harvel

Jack is originally from Kansas City, Missouri and has been making his way west since graduating from the University of Missouri, working a year and a half in Northeast Colorado before moving to Bend in the Spring of 2021. When not reporting he’s either playing folk songs (poorly) or grand strategy video games,...
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