USCB Biology Students Analyze Wastewater For Clues About COVID-19

Can wastewater from bathrooms around the Lowcountry predict the next local coronavirus hotspot?

University of South Carolina Beaufort student researchers are monitoring the spread of COVID-19 by partnering with the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority to study wastewater, which may sound an early warning for spikes in disease.

Dr Tye Pettay, molecular ecologist and assistant professor of biological oceanography, assembled a team of undergraduate assistants to study wastewater, with the hope that wastewater monitoring could one day help communities keep a one step ahead of a rapidly evolving virus. The new coronavirus appears in the stools of symptomatic and asymptomatic people who have been infected, which means that evidence of its spread is leaking daily in sewage treatment plants.

In the future, public health officials would not need to wait for COVID-19 patients to show up in doctors’ offices. It can take several days for patients to get sick enough to seek treatment and more days to get test results, so official counts of COVID-19 cases show what has happened in the past, not what is happening now. Sewage testing could identify an increase much faster, researchers believe, giving doctors time to prepare and disease investigators a head start in identifying new hot spots.

“I like all the research, but it’s especially interesting because maybe we can help people,” said biology major Sam Messinides, a junior, who works on the project. “We can get a pretty good idea of ​​which sites are most affected. ”

In the 2020-21 school year, because the USCB was unable to systematically and promptly test the entire student body, leaders of the university’s public health response team asked Pettay if he could use the equipment in his laboratory on the Beaufort campus to test the wastewater. from university residences.

Pettay reused the equipment he used to study ocean plankton, and USCB Chancellor Dr Al Panu used federal CARES funding to purchase other supplies he needed to begin analyzing samples of wastewater. USCB modeled its wastewater analysis project on a similar study conducted at the University of South Carolina in Colombia.

This summer, Pettay’s lab began testing weekly samples taken by BJWSA staff at the sewage treatment plants in Hardeeville, Cherry Point (Bluffton), Palmetto Bluff, Palm Key, Point South, St. Hélène, Port Royal and Laurel Bay.

“None of this would have been possible without them (BJWSA),” Pettay said. “It was a fantastic partnership.”

Pettay’s lab equipment on USCB’s Beaufort campus uses sensitive tools to identify the virus that causes COVID-19 from anything found in raw sewage. This methodology, called wastewater epidemiology, has been used to track the community presence of several other viruses in recent years, including polio.

Students mix the samples using a kitchen mixer, then use a centrifuge to separate the components from the fluid. Finally, they obtain the viral concentrate by filtering the samples. The samples are frozen until RNA can be extracted and tested for SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19.

Several samples had enough of the new coronavirus to detect, the students said.

Data on the amount of COVID-19 particles per liter of wastewater needs to be coupled with other information – the number of individuals served by a particular treatment plant and the average volume of viral particles released by infected individuals. , for example – to calculate the number of people in a given community has the virus.

In addition to providing community service and advancing scientific research, students gain valuable experience while working in the laboratory.

Zyamanii Baksh, whom his lab colleagues call “Z”, wants to go to medical school.

“This is a great opportunity for me to get research training,” she said.

Laboratory testing of wastewater carries a certain level of risk, as raw wastewater contains many potential pathogens. Pettay and his students use KN95 respirators, gloves, eye protection, and lab coats to protect themselves from bacteria and viruses that might be present in wastewater. Scientists are uncertain whether the COVID-19 viral particles in sewage are infectious – they may just be inactive molecular fingerprints of the virus.

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