How UNC Charlotte set up COVID-19 wastewater testing

College dorm wastewater can help in detecting coronavirus and deterring an outbreak on campus.
By: | September 3, 2020
Students are assisting with reviewing wastewater samples in the UNC Charlotte lab.Students are assisting with reviewing wastewater samples in the UNC Charlotte lab.

Nasal swab and blood samples aren’t the only way to sniff out COVID-19. At UNC Charlotte, researchers are performing surveillance on wastewater as part of the institution’s effects to uncover coronavirus clues and potentially stop an outbreak in its tracks.

The effort involves testing the water prior to students exhibiting and reporting symptoms. If COVID-19 is identified, officials can determine where it came from and enact group testing.

Wastewater-based epidemiology is not necessarily new, but it is novel for the early detection of COVID-19. Its application within a college campus environment allows the university to analyze the effectiveness of this approach in a congregate living setting. Findings also may be applicable to towns, cities and counties for similar investigations at neighborhood levels to foresee and abate outbreaks as well as to K-12 or similar settings.

Cynthia Gibas, professor of bioinformatics and genomics at UNC Charlotte, answered some questions about the testing.

UB: Why did you decide to test wastewater?

Gibas: Wastewater testing provides the ability to detect viral shedding from infected people who may not have symptoms yet. Recent research shows that coronavirus levels in wastewater can start increasing several days before an increase in known cases is detected. So it makes sense to use it as a sentinel for possible outbreaks.

UB: What does the process look like?

Gibas: UNC Charlotte is tapping directly into waste lines in the plumbing underneath dormitories. We set up a device called an autosampler, which can pull material from the line at intervals over a period of several hours. It’s completely enclosed so that our workers aren’t exposed directly to the wastewater. From that composite sample we take a part of it, extract the RNA, and then use a qPCR test, which is a molecular biology method for detecting a specific RNA sequence. We have a group of several faculty and staff members working to get this set up, and we’ll have a team of part-time workers who will go out and do sample collection three times a week and then come back to the lab to help with routine processing of samples.

Wastewater research elsewhere

According to a New York Times article, Rochester Institute of Technology researchers are also looking into COVID detection via wastewater. The University of Arizona has included this in its testing efforts as well.

UB: Can you offer any advice to campus administrators interested in getting a similar program up and running?

Gibas: If you don’t have the right expertise already in place on your campus, it may take some time to figure out where to start with protocols. Even for us with a group already working in wastewater, there is still quite a bit of optimization to do. Equipment may be scarce. We ordered autosamplers two weeks ago, and there was already a substantial shipping delay. Supply chain issues are likely to get in the way of getting this up and running really fast.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.