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Following experts into Michigan State sewers as they search for signs of COVID-19 in wastewater

Scientists search for early warning signs of coronavirus

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Local 4 followed scientists into the sewers at Michigan State University as they searched for early warning signs of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in wastewater.

What started as an intriguing laboratory finding about analyzing wastewater to detect the virus that causes COVID-19 has not turned into something more. Experts are hoping the testing might bring early warning and indicate the scale of an outbreak in a given community.

Local 4 Defenders cameras were rolling on a cold and rainy Monday morning on Michigan State’s campus. Graduate students joined a unique group trying to track COVID-19 in wastewater.

“It became pretty clear that we could find the virus in wastewater, and more and more studies were showing that we could link the levels of the virus in wastewater to the levels of the disease in the community,” said Dr. Joan Rose, a water microbiologist professor at MSU. “The temperature we are checking for the sample, we take it in the field because then we stored the sample on ice until we get it to the lab.”

The hope is that this testing can be part of a surveillance network. The crew has complex sewer sheds and maps so they can isolate the different pipes as they come from different buildings or complexes.

“One of the questions that we thought we could help answer is: Are there asymptomatic infections? Can we detect infections early?” Rose said.

Similar testing is being done at the University of Michigan.

“We began to do sampling about three weeks ago,” said Rick Neitzel, a U of M professor of environmental sciences. “It was very important to get a baseline, meaning it happened before the students and more faculty and staff returned to campus. So those are the measurements we are going to compare everything else against.”

“We are doing a rapid test,” MSU lab tech microbiologist Rebecca Ives said. “They will try to get the results by tomorrow morning, and that will go to our committee and they will see if there are any safety concerns for our students.”

Results later showed the dorms that were tested were negative, but East Lansing sewage was still positive for the virus.

“We are taking samples once a week, and looking for the virus, we may need to take samples more frequently,” Rose said. “The idea is that you can get early warning of about three to seven days.”

“It that works and they can detect it from sewage samples, then perfect,” said Kenzie Warsen, an MSU junior in social relations and public policy. “That’s awesome.”

Rose said the next challenge is to find a way for the results to be brought into some type of program that can be displayed for health departments and students, or even concerned parents.

Rose said the state is looking to set up 13 labs across Michigan to do similar testing.


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