Not everyone gets tested for COVID-19, but everyone goes to the bathroom, and scientists studying the recent data at the MWRA’s Deer Island’s waste treatment facility in neighboring Winthrop are seeing an alarming trend.
In June, the MWRA Board of Directors approved a $200,000 contract with Biobot Analytics, Inc. for a six-month pilot study of wastewater at the Deer Island Treatment Plant as an early warning system tracking trends and potentially predicting a second wave of COVID-19.
The Deer Island plant treats wastewater from 43 communities in eastern Massachusetts, including Boston, which have been representing 40 to 50 percent of the COVID cases in Massachusetts.
Infectious disease experts like Ashish Jha are seeing a dramatic spike in traces of the COVID-19 virus in wastewater at the Deer Island plant, numbers that have not been seen since the pandemic began in March.
“Every day, I stare at this wastewater data from Massachusetts and get more and more concerned,” said Jha on Twitter this week. Jha is dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, “This is not about testing or cases. This is about how much infection there is in the community. In March, we could be excused for being blindsided. What’s our excuse for inaction now?”
MWRA’s COVID Resurgence Study consists of analyzing wastewater samples from flows coming into Deer Island from the north and south of the service area. Samples are collected three times a week with rapid analysis followed by upstream samples in order to inform public health officials if an increased signal for the virus that causes COVID-19 is detected.
Analysis of wastewater for the genetic signal (viral RNA) of the SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19 is proving to be a cost-effective approach to providing population-level screening for outbreaks of COVID-19. The first published report of this approach came from the Netherlands, where the analysis of wastewater was able to detect the genetic signal in advance of any known cases of COVID-19 in two cities.
Biobot Analytics released the first demonstration of this approach in the United States, using data from courtesy samples provided by MWRA in early March 2020. Subsequent studies from locations around the world have demonstrated the effectiveness of wastewater analyses to provide an early warning of COVID-19 outbreaks by up to seven days in advance of confirmed cases showing up in the public health data.
This pilot program will take this approach a step further by continuing the regular analysis of the wastewater and trending of the signal from the MWRA service area through the end of the year. MWRA will likely use the lessons learned from this pilot program to establish a long-term program for 2021 and beyond for as long as COVID-19 continues to be a public health threat.