Photo: Erika Stark works in WEST labs
With the return of students, faculty and staff to the University of Arizona (UArizona) in August 2020, WEST Center will apply its research expertise and laboratory capabilities to monitor for COVID-19 on campus. Specifically, researchers at WEST have begun sampling and testing wastewater from multiple locations at UArizona for early detection of in-house infections. This monitoring of wastewater is just one of the many ways UArizona is prepared to identify cases and quickly stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
No Small Thing
Planning for a safe return to campus during a pandemic is no small undertaking. Throughout the spring and summer of 2020, a Test, Trace and Treat Team has developed plans for key areas, including testing, contact tracing, isolation, and medical care. Plans include mandatory testing for students as they return to the University, mask requirements, a COVID-19 tracing app, adjustments to facility use and more, all taken to ensure that students receive the University’s high standard of education while staying as safe as possible during an unprecedented time.
WBE in action at UArizona
One essential part of the multi-pronged approach to maintaining a healthy campus during 2020-2021 is the implementation of wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE). Wastewater-based epidemiology is not a new science (used in the eradication of poliovirus for example), but the recent development of SARS-CoV-2 and the disease COVID-19 has brought the value of WBE into sharp focus.
Since March of this year, WEST Center has aided communities in surveilling their sewage for COVID-19 through WBE laboratory analysis. Wastewater treatment plants from across the country and beyond have sent samples of wastewater for testing at WEST in an effort to detect infections and manage outbreaks of the novel disease. By analyzing wastewater, researchers are able to detect whether SARS-CoV-2 RNA is present in a sample and, importantly, at what concentration. Because infected individuals shed the virus prior to showing symptoms, testing wastewater provides early detection of the disease. It also provides an alert even when individuals are not showing symptoms (asymptomatic).
Shifting focus to local health, WEST Center will analyze wastewater collected from ten University of Arizona campus locations (with emphasis on dorms) several times per week throughout the 2020-2021 academic year. Tracking the virus in wastewater will help identify possible hot spots of concern, and any positive results will be used by Residence Life and Campus Health to quickly intervene to slow and stop the spread of COVID-19 infections on campus.
As life resumes at the University of Arizona, the remarkable expertise of WEST and other University units is being utilized to mitigate risks associated with the coronavirus pandemic. WBE is poised to play an essential part in maintaining the health and safety of the University community.
For more information, view the KOLD Channel 13 news story, "University of Arizona testing sewage water for COVID-19" (Megan McNeil, Aug.24, 2020).
The WEST Center Campus Re-Entry WBE team includes:
- Dr. Ian Pepper – Director, WEST Center and Professor, Environmental Science
- Dr. Charles Gerba -- Professor, Environmental Science
- Dr. Walter Betancourt – Assistant Research Professor, Environmental Science
- Erika Stark – Research Technician, Environmental Science
- Jeff Bliznick – Engineer, WEST Center
- Sarah Prasek – Program Coordinator, WEST Center
- Nick Betts-Childress – Student, Environmental Science