Wastewater used to detect viruses throughout Missouri

While researchers can't see what the future holds, they may now have a faster way to see when Covid-19 and other diseases emerge in the area.

NEWTON COUNTY, Mo.–Researchers at the University of Missouri have been using wastewater samples throughout the pandemic to gain a better insight of what Covid-19 cases look like throughout the state.

Now, it’s being used to see what other illnesses are present in our communities as well.

It may seem a little gross…but it may also be the easiest way to detect the spread of various viruses. 

“Poop doesn’t lie, so we can always figure out what’s really going on”, said Marc Johnson. “I mean, we we can’t really see the future. But if a new lineage moves into a sewer shed that is highly contagious, without an icon, we could say very reliably, you’re going to see an increase because this guy is more contagious than what was there before.”

Johnson, a professor at the University of Missouri’s School of Medicine has been working on the Sewer shed project since May 2020. The team of wastewater operators throughout Missouri collects samples to send to Johnson’s office.

“We take this little sample that we extract the RNA from, just like you would in a clinical lab. And we use qPCR the same kind of PCR tests that you use to test if you’re infected. The only difference is we do it in such a way that we can say not only whether it’s present, but how much it’s present.”

The testing has already helped out local health departments, like Newton County’s generate a better understanding of diseases present in the community.

Larry Bergner, administrator for the Newton County Health Department says the reports he receives of the watershed testing provide a helpful overview of community virus levels.

“I can kind of anticipate what’s coming,” Bergner said.

He says it could be helpful when dealing with other endemic diseases as well.

“Any virus can be tested in the sewer shed. So whether it’s Flu or any other type of virus, the Avian Bird Flu, some of those other types that we’ve seen through the years. We’re starting to get technology where we can kind of see that in the sewer shed and then we can anticipate and prepare for it. It is very helpful tool,” said Bergner.

The way samples are collected could paint a clearer picture of what’s actually spreading throughout communities.

“This isn’t the only read out that health departments get, but it’s a good, reliable one. One that’s not affected by your typical factors,” Johnson said.