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Forecasting Coronavirus Outbreaks

UD researchers study wastewater to detect COVID-19, partner with New Castle County

by | January 15, 2021

Photo courtesy of Kali Kniel
Center for Environmental and Wastewater Epidemiology Research

The University of Delaware Center for Environmental and Wastewater Epidemiology Research (CEWER) team members visit a campus wastewater sampling location.

Our current public health pandemic requires scientists to track and prevent the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). In addition to major testing and lab analysis of saliva-based samples, University of Delaware researchers are now looking for the presence of the virus in wastewater. 

College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) faculty members Kali Kniel and Eric Wommacklaunched the new Center for Environmental and Wastewater-based Epidemiological Research (CEWER). The effort includes testing wastewater samples to understand the prevalence of COVID-19 in New Castle County and on the UD campus.

“Wastewater-based epidemiology has been used for many years to study trends of infectious disease or chemical substance use in a population,” said Kniel, professor of microbial food safety. “Early in this pandemic, it became apparent to scientists that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19, can be detected in many different clinical samples, including stool and urine.”

In similar research efforts around the country, early analysis showed that such sampling gives a three- to five-day advanced notice of a potential coronavirus outbreak. Through examination of wastewater, UD researchers can drill down to COVID-19 cases in specific buildings like university residence halls. Paired with clinical case information, this wastewater data creates a map of where additional testing is needed. 

“This data provides another arrow in the quiver in dealing with COVID-19,” said Wommack. “We’re gaining an understanding of how clinical cases fit together with wastewater samples, ultimately working towards being able to forecast trends.” 

This new service center’s first partner is right here at home. Soon after the virus reached the First State, New Castle County was out front in offering COVID-19 testing to Delawareans. The county also hired a startup company based in Massachusetts to test for the presence of COVID-19 in wastewater. But Guy Marcozzi, a UD Board of Trustees member and president of Duffield Associates, a company whose portfolio includes wastewater projects, said UD’s virology expertise would be a better fit. Beginning in mid-summer, UD not only started performing this virology analysis, but did so at less cost for the county. 

“Our college has been on the front lines of COVID-19, including the large volume of saliva-based clinical testing conducted by our scientists in Allen Laboratory,” said Wommack, professor of environmental microbiology and deputy dean of CANR. “This type of effort is exactly what Abraham Lincoln and his administration intended when they established land-grant universities like the University of Delaware in 1862. This project directly serves the public and at a time of great need.”

Since the SARS-CoV-2 virus may be shed in the stool and urine of infected individuals, UD researchers look for varying virus levels within a sewer shed, gleaning information about the health of the entire sewer shed population. On campus, researchers selected seven sampling sites to monitor this fall, leaning on Duffield Associates’ sewer systems expertise.