DEQ, university researchers help test wastewater for COVID-19 infection rates in Utah

Zachary Aanderud LabDr Zachary Aanderud (left) and Senior BYU Microbiology student Kevin Torgerson demonstrates the process to test wastewater to quantify the concentration of COVID-19 specific RNA by taking samples, inactivating the virus, centrifuging it and then filtering the liquid.May 12, 2020 (Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU© BYU PHOTO 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Collegiate researchers are monitoring wastewater flushed away from homes and businesses to see if it provides a better understanding of coronavirus infection rates.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality, along with researchers from across the state are working together in hopes of establishing infection rates of COVID-19.

Brigham Young University Professor Zach Aanderud is one of three researchers providing scientific expertise with the monitoring. He said in a news release:

Not everyone gets tested. But almost everyone goes to the bathroom daily, which could make this metric extremely useful for educating the public about the severity of cases in their communities.

According to the news release, the researchers quantify the concentration of COVID-19 specific RNA in composite 24-hour wastewater samples from wastewater treatment facilities across Utah by: inactivating the virus, centrifuging and filtering the wastewater, extracting RNA, and using RT-qPCR to quantify the number of COVID-19 gene copies.

The method, developed by project lead Jennifer Weidhaas of the University of Utah, has already proven successful in tests on samples from communities with high infection rates, including Park City and Salt Lake County, the release stated.

The pilot study includes sampling from communities with relatively lower infection rates. A number of wastewater treatment plants have volunteered to participate in the sample collection efforts. Partners include researchers from the:

  • Brigham Young University
  • University of Utah,
  • Utah State University,
  • Utah Division of Water Quality, and several state and municipal agencies.

The researchers point out it is important to know the virus is not alive in the way they are handling the samples. Instead, they are looking at genetic materials to detect infection rates and how they vary across the state. This method of testing could be crucial for tracking virus hotspots and offer daily updates on localized viral infection rates, the news release concluded.