Wastewater testing program prevents massive COVID-19 outbreak at the University of Arizona

Posted at 5:24 PM, Sep 11, 2020

“Between 9 and 10 a.m. is when you’ll have the heavier outflow, so it’s still a little early,” said Jeff Bilznick, who collects samples of wastewater at the University of Arizona.

8:30 a.m. and some students have yet to wake up to start their day.

So outflow of wastewater at this dorm is a little low. So Jeff Bilzinck is getting a smaller bottle to scoop a little poop, so to speak. Not that you’d be able to tell by looking at it

“Everyone’s disappointed when it’s not all gross,”Bilzinck said.

Bilzinck and his coworker Nick are collecting wastewater from across campus, for this man, So he can test it for COVID-19.

“Hi, I’m Dr. Pepper.”

No, not that Dr. Pepper. Dr. Ian Pepper is a different kind of liquid genius.

“I’m the director of the Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center,” said Pepper.

Dr. Pepper and his team have been testing wastewater for the coronavirus since students came back to campus and early in the school year, stopped a potential outbreak. After wastewater from a dorm came back positive, school officials tested the students living there and identified two asymptomatic students.

“The trick is by identifying the asymptomatic cases early, we are, if not eliminating, we are reducing exponential spread of the virus,” said Pepper.

Wastewater testing is gaining some steam in the scientific community outside of Arizona.

“We as individuals, humans, shed these virus in fecal material,” said Kellog Schwab, the director of the Water Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

He has been studying wastewater virology for 30 years. He says what they’re doing in Arizona is complicated.

“It is not straight forward. There are a lot of interfering substances as you can imagine in a waste stream that you have to then purify the virus from. It’s not just you grab a sample from a particular part of the environment and then instantly be able to detect the virus. You need to process that sample, you need to maintain the integrity of your target of interest, and then you have to have the appropriate detection,” said Schwab.

But he and Dr. Pepper agree that this type of testing could be scaled up and implemented at universities and other populated facilities where COVID-19 could potentially spread.

“Wastewater epidemiology has the potential to be scalable,” said Schwab.

“Perhaps targeting high-risk areas like nursing homes. We’re helping people in Yuma, Arizona, testing our farm workers when they come here in the fall, so there’s a great deal of potential,” said Pepper.

“Many research laboratories have the capacity to do this,” said Schwab.

That potential to expand this type of testing, and keep people safe, keeps Pepper going.

“We are keeping the university open, which is really important. And, you know, dare I say, actually, probably saving lives,” said Pepper.

Saving lives and closing the lid on the coronavirus.