WCAX-TV highlights Norwich’s Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Initiative

Although vaccines are rolling out in Vermont and some Norwich community members have begun getting theirs, prevention protocols continue to keep campus healthy — mask wearing, handwashing, distancing and expanded clinical testing. The Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Initiative has complemented these efforts importantly.  

The initiative since September has tested wastewater from the Northfield Wastewater Treatment Facility and campus manholes to look for viral RNA, a genetic signal, to detect COVID-19. The testing works as an early screening tool because the virus can be shed in feces even when infected people are asymptomatic.

Waterbury, Vermont, radio station WDEV’s “Vermont Viewpoint” program covered the project in the fall, inviting project co-Director Dr. Tara Kulkarni, a Norwich associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, on air. Over the weekend, Burlington, Vermont, CBS affiliate WCAX-TV, Channel 3, covered the story, sending reporter Ike Bendavid to Norwich’s Northfield, Vermont, campus.

“Even though it felt like our project was derailed because of restrictions posed by the high number of (COVID-19) positives (earlier in the semester), the team remained resilient.”Dr. Tara Kulkarni, Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Initiative director

In one interview, Bendavid talked to Looknauth Mahadeo, a construction management major and member of the Corps of Cadets and the initiative’s technical team. Mahadeo helped build the autosampling machinery that was installed in manhole covers near campus residence halls to test wastewater.

“The thing about the Corps of Cadets is we’re very curious people,” Mahadeo said. “If we go out there, we’re popping manholes, setting the timer, getting the sample collected, ready.”

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Marie Agan, a Norwich University lecturer and chemistry laboratory coordinator, describes the colorimetric analysis used to detect genetic traces of the novel coronavirus in sampled wastewater. (Screenshot from video/WCAX-TV.)

Norwich’s project is cross-disciplinary, involving civil engineering, construction management students (to build equipment and conduct the sampling); chemistry and biochemistry students (to analyze the samples) and humanities students (to record podcasts and promote the project). Professors include Kulkarni, Communications Lecturer Dr. Stephen Pite and Chemistry Lab Coordinator and Lecturer Marie Agan.

With its project, Norwich joined a collection of universities and labs nationwide in using wastewater to test for COVID-19. NPR reported in October that more than 65 U.S. colleges are testing wastewater to monitor coronavirus spread; others include Syracuse University, Colorado College, Louisiana State University and the University of California, San Diego. 

Cities and towns across America have also been testing the waters. In Vermont, Burlington has been testing sewers for COVID-19 since August. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created a website to which state, tribal, local and territorial health departments can submit wastewater testing data for a national database.

Norwich senior Samantha Gonzalez, a U.S. Army lieutenant, described taking wastewater samples into on-site laboratories for concentration and analysis. She said she had relatives die from COVID-19 and wanted to help others escape similar fates.

“What can I learn about it, what can I do to … help,” she said.

The color of COVID-19

Agan told Bendavid how colorimetric analysis, in which color reagents signal compound concentrations in fluids, signaled genetic traces of the novel coronavirus in Norwich’s wastewater.

“When the (water) changed color, we knew it was positive,” said Agan, who’s working on the project as part of her graduate studies in analytical chemistry, medical lab science and public health at the University of Vermont.

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A student on Norwich University’s Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Initiative team secures a wastewater sample from a campus manhole during the fall 2020 semester. (Photo by Mark Collier/Norwich University.)

Agan echoed something Kulkarni, the director of Norwich’s Center for Global Resilience and Security, has also said — the project can continue post-COVID-19 to gauge the Norwich community’s health. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said wastewater testing has previously helped to detect diseases, including polio, early. 

“It enables us to look at these trends in population health and make public health decisions based on what we’re seeing,” Agan told Bendavid.

The initiative was forced into hiatus earlier this semester when COVID-19 cases spiked and the university instituted a modified in-room quarantine. Kulkarni said students didn’t begin spring semester work — tracking supplies that were received over winter break and assembling additional autosamplers — until the in-room quarantine and campus quarantine was lifted Feb. 16.

“Even though it felt like our project was derailed because of restrictions posed by the high number of positives, the team remained resilient,” Kulkarni said.

Service and sustainability

For example, she said, the team focused on the project’s service and research components, building and testing seven new autosamplers and creating videos with step-by-step instructions for how to build more.

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Dr. Tara Kulkarni said students working on the Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Initiative have focused on ensuring that infrastructure and equipment are sound and will accommodate future projects. (Photo by Mark Collier/Norwich University.)

The videos, once finalized, will be shared with the broader community, she said, as will podcasts the project’s communications majors have made, guided by Pite.

The team also tested cold-weather fixes to ensure that tubing used to collect wastewater samples doesn’t freeze, a concern in Vermont, where winter temperatures are often below freezing and occasionally below zero temperatures.  

Kulkarni said under Associate Provost for Research Dr. Karen Hinkle’s leadership, she and Agan have deepened connections with other Vermont researchers, including wastewater treatment professionals and state agency contacts to build a statewide collaborative, the Vermont Initiative for Biological and Environmental Surveillance, or VIBES.

Kulkarni said because wastewater tests will usually show positive results in the spike’s aftermath, the initiative’s work shifted away from COVID-19 screening to building infrastructure for future research.

“I’m so proud of this team; they have lived the Norwich motto of ‘I will try’ each day, innovating, reimagining, adapting and building this initiative,” Kulkarni said. “The Center for Global Resilience and Security will continue to support the (Wastewater-Based Epidemiology) Initiative as we look for coronavirus variants and antibodies and pursue non-COVID environmental health investigations in the future.”

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