The Cedar Rapids Water Pollution Control facility on Bertram Road Cedar Rapids photographed from State Highway 13. (The Gazette)
CEDAR RAPIDS — To learn more about coronavirus in the community, the city of Cedar Rapids is turning to human waste for clues.
This summer, the city began participating in a nationwide study of wastewater facilities to monitor transmission of the disease. The research provides a method — other than testing of residents — to check the extent of a virus’ presence in the community, and could inform future efforts to track the spread of infectious diseases.
This program is a partnership between Boston-based company Biobot Analytics, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. It will cover over 100 million people across the nation to better understand the virus’ spread in the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Des Moines also participated in this federal study. Iowa City is not participating in this study, but has been part of a previous HHS study.
Biobot developed the ability to detect and normalize the concentration of the coronavirus in wastewater from samples taken at the Water Pollution Control Facility, controlling for the level of industrial waste dilution, Utilities Director Roy Hesemann said in a statement.
Biobot uses CDC data and results from its analysis to compare the strength indicated in the sampling of the city’s wastewater stream to new COVID-19 case data from Linn County over time.
The normalized coronavirus concentration has spiked with the surge fueled by the delta variant to a high of 493,630 copies per liter of sewage Aug. 30 — up from 56,638 copies per liter of sewage from the first sample on June 7.
Utilities Environmental Manager Mike Kuntz said in a statement that “with the high level of nationwide utility participation, an additional benefit of the Biobot program is the ability to identify new virus strains more quickly than submitting individual samples for laboratory testing. We can also get a sense of how our data compares to other program participants’.”
So far, Kuntz said Cedar Rapids has collected 23 samples over 13 weeks of sampling. The first 10 weeks of sampling were covered at no cost by a federal grant program. The city samples twice weekly with Biobot Analytics, each sample costing $350 for materials, delivery, analysis and reporting.
Kuntz said Biobot Analytics secured the grant and provided sampling at more than 300 wastewater plants across the United States. To date, the remaining seven samples have cost $2,450.
“We will continue to take advantage of grant funding opportunities as they arise,” Kuntz said. “To lower future costs, we will be moving to a once-weekly sampling program.”
Before participation in the federal study, Cedar Rapids staff also had conducted sampling in raw sewage directly from sewer pipes beginning in March. This involved Utilities Department staff collecting field samples and contracting outside lab services for analysis. But only a limited amount of the virus was detected in this sampling program.
The public had begun to inquire about the possibility of sampling wastewater at the Water Pollution Control Facility around the beginning of the pandemic, Hesemann said.
But according to research at the time, the heavy flow of industrial waste there would “potentially dilute any samples collected, making it difficult to identify the virus in any sampling,” Hesemann said. More is known now about effective sampling to detect the coronavirus.
The Biobot technology helps reduce the amount of required staff time and exposure risk when setting up field sampling, he said.
For the city-initiated study, Kuntz said staff drove to sample sites and set up sampling units in sewer manholes. Opening sewer manholes poses risks such as moving traffic in roadways, where work is performed, and paper products or other sewer obstructions may hinder sampling units and prevent them from collecting enough material for analysis, Kuntz said.
The lab analysis for this method also cost more per sample, at $600 per unit, he said.
On-site sampling conducted at the Water Pollution Control Facility with the Biobot technology eliminates many of the challenges involved with field sampling, Kuntz said, in addition to reducing staff time for the research.
Cedar Rapids is partnering with Linn County Public Health and Unity Point to share updates on wastewater sampling for COVID-19, Hesemann said.
“This information will continue to contribute to our understanding of the presence and activity level of COVID-19 in our metro area,” Hesemann said. “Research from the study may also contribute to developing methods and techniques that could be useful in future illness tracking and predictions of contagious spread.”
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