A team of Virginia Tech researchers will begin testing wastewater at 15 campus sites for the presence of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), enabling the university to more rapidly identify and respond to positive tests.

The advance will allow the university to monitor clusters of campus buildings on a daily basis, testing for the presence of the virus in fecal matter. If the testing shows positive results, the university can then conduct targeted testing among individuals in those buildings to zero in on possible infections. The idea is to more proactively identify virus clusters, even when individuals may be asymptomatic.

“The general idea is that people who are sick with COVID-19 excrete the virus or viral RNA in their feces, and it ends up in sewers,” said Peter Vikesland, professor of civil and environmental engineering. “That signal can be detected for a period of time after people are sick, and you can potentially detect it before you start to see clinical cases.”

The team — led by Vikesland, civil and environmental engineering professor Amy Pruden, and Ph.D. candidate Ayella Maile-Moskowitz — has been conducting sampling at five campus sites to test the process, but is just beginning to test samples. Now, Virginia Tech's Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering have invested $200,000 to expand the project to 15 sites on the Blacksburg campus. Most, but not all, of the sampling sites focus on clusters of residence halls.

"As we saw researchers around the world testing their wastewater for COVID we thought it would be interesting to see if we could too, since we already examine wastewater for pathogens and viruses in our lab," Maile-Moskowitz said. "As it became clear that the pandemic was not going anywhere, we saw it as an opportunity to help the university in determining where outbreaks might be occurring around campus, especially as an early warning system."

“We are in the process of expanding monitoring and getting a baseline,” said Pruden. “We’re planning to sample from the sewage of the dorm on campus where students who tested positive are being isolated. That will be a good positive control to compare to, and then we’ll go from there.”

Each site can be monitored daily, with the samples then sent to the Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, which is processing clinical swabs for COVID-19 testing for the Roanoke and New River valleys.

“The whole idea is conceptually very simple,” said Carla Finkielstein, director of the lab and associate professor with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and the Department of Biological Sciences. “If you really think, what we want here is to somehow use a broad way to test a community and find out if there’s any potential COVID outbreak coming. The idea is to identify the virus before spreading. One of the most difficult things is identifying those cases that are pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic. By doing this kind of sewage epidemiology, you’re getting a snapshot of what is going on in the population that doesn’t show any symptoms of the disease. You can detect the virus before anybody has any symptoms.”

The samples are processed within a day after they’re received at the lab, and Finkielstein said the additional samples will not significantly add to the lab’s workload. In fact, they likely will help Virginia Tech to proactively target its testing toward potential outbreaks: If positive results show up for a cluster of residence halls, Virginia Tech will work with the Virginia Department of Health to do more testing within those halls, as well as to conduct contact-tracing.

This methodology grew out of a previous project targeted at tracking antibiotic resistance by monitoring sewage. With the pandemic and approvals to develop the process for COVID-19, researchers are learning more and may be able to adapt the system to monitor for other viruses and markers in the future.

“We want to build a platform not just for the pandemic, but flexible for future pandemics and global health threats,” said Pruden.

Ron Fricker, senior associate dean in the Virginia Tech College of Science, is co-leading a multidisciplinary infectious disease modeling group that is helping the university better understand and plan for the effects of the pandemic. He hailed the wastewater monitoring project as a “true game-changer in Virginia Tech’s ability to do COVID-19 surveillance.

“This effort is an example of Virginia Tech at its best,” Fricker said. “It’s a cross-campus collaboration between faculty and students in the College of Engineering, the College of Science, the College of Veterinary Medicine, Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities, and Virginia Tech Emergency Management, who have all come together to develop and deploy a new technology to help solve a critical real-world problem.”

Read more about Virginia Tech's response to COVID-19 at the university's Ready site.

— Written by Mason Adams