In fall 2020, CGRS launched its first environmental health investigation. Norwich University developed a Wastewater Based Epidemiology (WBE) Initiative and joined a growing effort among colleges and universities across the United States to investigate the use of wastewater for early detection of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.
Results from testing wastewater from the local treatment facilities and campus manholes serve as an early screening tool because the virus can be shed in feces even when infected people are asymptomatic. This technique may be helpful to community leaders in identifying infection clusters, so they can respond with more directed public health measures, including targeted testing.
TESTING THE WATERS: A TIMELINE
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wastewater can reveal COVID-19 outbreaks up to seven days before before public health data. The CDC National Wastewater Surveillance System offers a national public database in which state, tribal, local and territorial health departments can submit their data. The following timeline charts the NU WBE Initiative activities from its inception:
- Norwich University dedicated laboratory space in the Cabot Science Building and provided funding for equipment.
- Technical, scientific and communications sub-groups combined to form an interdisciplinary team. Students from construction management, civil engineering, communications, business, chemistry and biochemistry worked with three faculty advisers.
- Participants in the WBE Initiative got quickly to work, building the lab and procuring the necessary instrumentation.
- The WBE Initiative began testing local wastewater. The first sewage samples were collected at the Northfield Wastewater Treatment Plant (NWTP) and sent to two commercial laboratories for analysis. The results were negative and helped establish a baseline.
- The science team performed the first analysis in the Norwich lab, including samples collected from the NWTP. Some of those samples tested positive, which coincided with an outbreak in the Northfield, Vt., community. Norwich leadership alerted local officials.
- The WBE team built an autosampler at a cost of less than $1,000 to be used for sample collection in campus manholes.
- Samples were collected from three campus locations and analyzed in house. The results necessitated in additional quarantine and clinical testing requirements for two dormitories which ultimately helped minimize transmission.
- Eight additional automatic sampling devices were constructed.
- A manual to build and run the automatic samplers was developed.
- The technical team presented in Norwich University’s Student Scholarship Celebration, Engineering Convocation, and the Vermont State Engineers meeting.
The work continues in 2021.
THE FIVE COMPONENTS OF THE WBE INITIATIVE
THE WBE TEAM
- Team members were trained in a range of skills from OSHA Confined Spaces to resilient scientists and participated in journal clubs and weekly discussions. Students led and facilitated meetings and had opportunities to interact with the university’s leadership team and COVID-19 task
- A manuscript of the technical team’s effort was submitted to the Undergraduate Research Journal.
- Professors Kulkarni and Agan presented this work at the Vermont Rural Water Association’s Annual Conference in May 2021.