June 23, 2020

Departments of Health and Senior Services and Natural Resources partner with University of Missouri on project to test domestic wastewater for Coronavirus

Media Contact:
Lisa Cox
Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services

JEFFERSON CITY, MO – The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and researchers at the University of Missouri – Columbia are collaborating on a statewide project to test domestic wastewater for genetic markers of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The project is funded by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity grant through the DHSS.

The idea for the project came from studies in the Netherlands, Italy and United States that found a direct correlation between the amount of viral material in sewage and the number of reported cases within a given “sewershed,” or the area that drains into a community’s wastewater collection system.

While the virus that causes COVID-19 is new, using wastewater for tracking disease is not a new technique. In the past, wastewater testing has proven useful in tracking diseases such as polio and norovirus, and could be a valuable tool for SARS-CoV-2 surveillance. The virus is shed in human feces, and it can be detected in wastewater by testing for specific genetic markers. It is important to note that wastewater is not a significant transmission pathway for the virus.

“Wastewater surveillance is a cost-effective, proactive effort to inform public health strategy and help mitigate disease spread,” said Chris Wieberg, director of DNR’s Water Protection Program. “We’ve had a tremendous interest and response from our partners in the wastewater treatment sector.”

Raw wastewater samples collected by communities are submitted via courier to the Life Sciences Center at the University of Missouri, where Professors Marc Johnson and Chung-Ho Lin, along with research scientist Hsin-Yeh Hsieh, conduct molecular analysis that looks for genetic markers of the virus. The university laboratory is currently testing sewage samples from nine pilot wastewater treatment facilities, and expects to analyze samples from up to 80 facilities per week starting in July.

“Our laboratory is equipped with state-of-the-art analytical instruments and methods,” said Professor Lin, “with the ability to detect and quantify down to low concentrations of the virus. It is certainly cutting-edge research directed at protecting the health and well-being of Missourians.”

“This sewage testing can provide additional, population-level information about the presence and amount of virus in a community that is not captured by testing patients,” said Jonathan Garoutte, Administrator of DHSS’s Section for Environmental Public Health. “People can be infected for up to 14 days before showing any symptoms, and they may not get tested. This testing can provide early awareness for local public health agencies and help direct testing and resources that protect public health.” 

The data generated from sewage testing will be useful for understanding the distribution of SARS-CoV-2 in Missouri, and monitoring long-term trends for indication of reemergence to inform mitigation efforts.