COVID-19 has changed how we work, play, learn and most certainly how we think. Schools are closing, sports leagues have been canceled, many people have been asked to work from home, and the increase in the number of "Karen's" rioting.
On March 16, the Trump administration released new guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19, including closing schools, bars, restaurants, food courts, discretionary travel, and avoiding groups of more than ten people. Despite these guidelines, COVID-19 continues to spread rapidly. As of Oct. 16, 2020, there are 39.4 million total cases of COVID-19 and over one million deaths worldwide. The hope for a vaccine to be deployed before 2020 is unlikely. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) a vaccine will not be approved until 2021. Infection rates are still at an all-time high, as states have started reopening borders and relaxing social distancing guidelines. The real problem is figuring out where the virus is spreading and how to detect it before it spreads. The solution? Your wastewater.
According to an article published by the Nature Biotechnology Journal, wastewater testing can provide information about the rise and fall of COVID-19 cases in a mid-sized metropolitan region. Wastewater surveillance is a cost effective way to survey virus transmission in communities. The CDC reports that wastewater can be tested for RNA from Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which is the virus that is responsible for causing COVID-19. This means that a detection of RNA material in wastewater could identify areas where the virus is already present. A study conducted by Xi He MD, from Guangzhou Eighth People’s Hospital in Guangzhou, China, discovered that viral shedding can occur two to three days before symptoms start to arise in individuals potentially infected with the virus. Meaning, SARS can be shed in the feces of individuals with symptomatic or asymptomatic infection. Wastewater surveillance can capture data on both types of infection. Sure, looking at people’s crap can raise some eyes, but it is noninvasive and inexpensive. If implemented properly, it could help those who come from disadvantaged communities where poverty and health insurance is an issue.
While this method of contact tracing is relatively new, the results are promising. During the first week of classes at the University of Arizona, officials reported that the wastewater screening technique worked. A routine screening revealed the presence of COVID-19 in one of the dorms. The school tested all “311 people who live and work there and found two asymptomatic students who tested positive [and] were quickly quarantined.” Richard Carmona, a former U.S surgeon general who is now directing University of Arizona’s re-entry plan said in an interview, “You think about if we had missed it, if we had waited until they became symptomatic and they stayed in that dorm for days, or a week, or the whole incubation period, how many other people would have been infected?”
UNC Charlotte’s Bioinformatics and Genomics professor, Dr. Cynthia Gibas, is a part of the COVID-19 University research team with Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Alabama, University of Virginia, etc. Dr. Gibas stated to Spectrum News that “[Students are] still shedding virus, and so you can detect that shedding in the [sample testing we set up in 20 residence halls]. The window is estimated to be about three to five days in advance. So, you will detect those cases by a diagnostic test” and in a separate interview to the Washington Post she expresses “It is important we get in and get the samples … It is not something we do routinely. We’re kind of building this for a special occasion.”
The impact this study has made on our campus is phenomenal. Because of wastewater testing, Dr. Gibas has been able to detect potential COVID-19 cases and if there are any clusters. According to WSOC-TV, Holshouser Hall was found to be infected earlier this month. The study found traces of SARS in the wastewater of the residence hall, and this study continues to test the wastewaters of every hall on campus. If there wasn’t a way to detect this earlier, cases would have been higher than it is today and it would’ve been a mess handling quarantine for these staff members and students.
The urgency of the study is more than ever. These trial-and-error experiments could help researchers develop technologies to help the rest of society to stay safe in this pandemic while the wait for the potential vaccine is ongoing. While others may think using people’s shit to combat a virus is full of shit, I say it is worth something to trust in. For now Niners, be kind to one another, work hard, take care of yourselves, and most importantly wear a mask and follow social distancing guidelines.