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Scientists given green light to test black water for COVID-19

Experts say study could help predict outbreaks before they happen
Posted at 10:48 AM, Aug 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-18 10:48:18-04

What you flush down your toilet could be brought back up to detect COVID-19.

“Anytime that we are talking about poop, it’s a subject that either brings laughter or disgust; maybe a combination of the two,” said John Putnam with Colorado Public Health and Environment.

Putnam is helping lead a team to test human waste to determine molecule levels linked with the coronavirus.

“This gives you early warning that there could be an upsurge or a lessening of the disease in the community,” he said.

Putnam says a person that’s been exposed to COVID-19 will pass the virus through their feces and possibly even urine. The waste eventually flows into sewer systems, which scientists will now collect.

“We can then take a sample at a wastewater plant and send it to a lab,” he said.

Labs at places like Metropolitan State University of Denver.

“One of the advantages of this approach is that everybody in the community makes a contribution to the sewage,” said Rebecca Ferrell, Ph.D., a biology professor at MSU Denver.

She says that when people get infected with COVID-19, they often shed the virus for several days before showing symptoms. Adding that this specialized stool sampling can alert scientists that the virus is in a community before people start getting sick.

“It can give you extra warning about what might be happening in the hospitals then days maybe even a week later when people get sick enough that they are going to make demands on health care that you need to anticipate,” Ferrell said.

With the cost to collect this data much cheaper than other options, Ferrell says more scientists are now teaming up with more wastewater treatment plants across the country.

“These are the kinds of techniques where a relatively small investment early on can help us to get those resources to the right place and we can keep the mortality low,” she said.

Hoping to get ahead of the pandemic, testing number two is becoming the number one priority for some scientists.