Indiana University of Pennsylvania faculty and students are working with Indiana Borough officials to develop a community wastewater surveillance system.
Since the start of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have found that detecting SARS-CoV-2 RNA (the virus that causes the COVID-19 infection in sewage) can serve as an important indicator of COVID-19 in the community, said Yongtao Cao, a faculty member in IUP’s Department of Mathematical and Computer Sciences who is part of the IUP team working on the project.
The goal of the IUP and Indiana Borough collaboration is to build a community wastewater surveillance system that includes data collection, modeling, forecasting, and public health interpretations.
In addition to Cao, the IUP team includes Frederick Adkins from the Department of Mathematical and Computer Sciences; Deanne Snavely, dean of the John J. and Char Kopchick College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics; Hilliary Creely, interim dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Research; and Khatmeh Osseiran-Hanna, vice president of the Division of University Advancement. Indiana Borough team members include Roland Francis, pretreatment coordinator/assistant wastewater superintendent, and Indiana Borough Manager C. Michael Foote.
Because the information from wastewater testing does not depend on individuals getting COVID-19 testing, it provides additional and important information for communities, Cao and Adkins said.
“There have been a number of successful wastewater surveillance projects in communities,” they said. “Our goal is to elevate the potential benefits of wastewater surveillance to the next level—delivering the results to better inform public health efforts, including using this information to better understand the spread of the epidemic in order to mitigate the risk of virus transmission.”
This collaboration began a year ago when the Borough of Indiana entered into a sewer surveillance program with Biobot Analytics, Inc. in April 2020. Weekly flow samples are collected over a 24-hour period at the headwaters of the wastewater plant and sent to BioBot Analytics.
Information about levels of COVID-19 in the samples are sent to Indiana Borough officials, who release this data weekly on the Indiana Borough website and its social media via an infographic that shows if the levels are increasing or decreasing.
“It is our hope that we can include students from IUP’s STEM and public health departments in the wastewater analysis,” Francis said. “This would greatly reduce the cost to the borough and also give students the opportunity for novel research at IUP. This partnership is a definite win-win for everyone involved, and greatly benefits the community.”
To advance this sampling project in Indiana Borough, Foote solicited help from IUP, seeking new opportunities to share the public health data and collaborate with IUP scientists to explore the possibility of local surveillance testing, possibly resulting in research that could be used to build predictive models.
“This research has provided immediate, real-time results which are being used to educate the public, and hopefully mitigate the viral spread,” Foote said.
Starting in March 2021, Adkins began work to collect samples on campus for analysis by BioBot Analytics. A grant funding the project supports student researchers who are investigating laboratory methods to prepare sewage samples for detecting SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentration.
“It is inspiring to see students excited about their contribution to addressing this real-world problem while they build skills beyond what they learned in the classroom,” Adkins said.
As a result of the collaboration, Cao has developed a web application -- https://ytcao.shinyapps.io/wwapp2/ -- designed to predict the number of COVID-19 cases from the presence of the SARS-Co-V-2 concentration levels in the wastewater and forecast the number of COVID-19 cases within Indiana Borough and IUP for three weeks in the future.
Cao and Francis, a 1984 IUP biology graduate, have also authored an academic paper on the topic and the collaboration, “On Forecasting the Community-wide COVID-19 Cases from the Concentration of SARS-CoV-2 in Wastewater.” The paper has been accepted for publication by the journal Science of the Total Environment.
The paper notes that “as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, clinical testing for COVID-19 at individual levels does not by itself provide a holistic indicator of community health risk,” because “most coronavirus infections in the US are caused by asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people; and a considerable percentage of patients recovered from COVID-19 could still carry and transmit the virus.”
The co-authors conclude that “because of this, a growing practice and research area for improving community health is using wastewater-based epidemiology to monitor the SARS-CoV-2 virus in wastewater, in conjunction with the clinical testing data.”
In addition to this work, Cao is also working on measuring the impact of COVID-19 on college students and on building a support system within the campus environment for college student patients with COVID-19.