How COVID-19 wastewater testing could be used, even as the pandemic winds down

Updated: May. 26, 2021 at 9:30 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Wastewater testing has been critical in slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Now, the same University of Virginia doctors leading the program are saying it has new uses as the pandemic winds down.

Dr. Amy Mathers, the UVA physician who led the wastewater testing research, says wastewater surveillance was originally developed to look for polio vaccine breakthroughs. Decades later, it can be used in the same capacity for COVID-19.

For months, wastewater testing was done at UVA dorms and nursing homes - places where large groups of then-unvaccinated people lived. But as more and more people get the shot, Mathers says wastewater testing may move to the broader community.

“What methods are we using and can we quantify it and have, not quite a weather report, but a kind-of-metric that looks at how much SARS-CoV-2 is being seen in a given community at the wastewater treatment plant level,” she said.

What that could mean is a glimpse at how communities are doing, especially since we don’t yet know how long vaccine-based immunity lasts.

“I think that could be really powerful to look for early data that shows surges,” Mathers said. “So that we don’t get behind the eight ball, if we do start seeing increasing transmission, or vaccine waning.”

This method to track potential community spread could be a way to stay on top of the virus, while only intervening if it does become a problem.

“Hopefully what we’re gonna do is make it so they don’t have to care about it until it’s time to care about it again.”

Now, wastewater testing may be able to make a lasting impact beyond just COVID. Mathers says UVA’s team is trained in safety and feels comfortable using the new technology, perhaps in ways we don’t yet know about.

“Out of desperation we really developed a lot of wastewater surveillance technology for this particular virus that then could be translated to other infectious diseases, potentially,” Mathers said.

As for the effectiveness of wastewater testing, the most recent study by UVA shows it can detect small numbers of asymptomatic cases. Mathers says it can be an early warning sign of an outbreak.

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