NORTHFIELD, Vt. — Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at Norwich University, St. Michael’s College and the University of Vermont partnered with municipal wastewater officials and state agency representatives to conduct wastewater surveillance for the SARS-CoV-2 virus and develop wastewater-based risk assessment tools for COVID-19. The tools can also be applied to other environmental health hazards that may emerge in Vermont.

The Vermont Initiative for Biological and Environmental Surveillance, aka VIBES, is a multidisciplinary group of scientists, engineers, faculty, staff, students, wastewater treatment professionals and state officials from Vermont institutions.

“VIBES was organically formed in response to COVID-19 concerns and is a great example of how collaborative efforts helped create this team to be a resource.” Dr. Karen Hinkle, associate provost for research, Norwich University

“It is our position that wastewater surveillance has been a critical tool in informing our understanding of COVID-19 prevalence within a community and it can guide future efforts to prevent transmission of this and any other new viruses that may emerge,” Norwich University Associate Provost for Research and Dana Professor of Biology Dr. Karen Hinkle said. “VIBES was organically formed in response to COVID-19 concerns and is a great example of how collaborative efforts helped create this team to be a resource. Now, given Vermont’s success at managing COVID-19, VIBES can help Vermont manage future emerging diseases and pathogens from environmental contaminants of concern.

“The VIBES consortium stands to serve as a resource to state officials and media outlets seeking subject-matter experts in wastewater epidemiology and environmental health and engineering.”

During the 2020-21 academic year and the COVID-19 pandemic, Norwich University students and faculty members developed a team and process for testing wastewater on campus for early detection of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Involving undergraduate students in a central role in this effort underscores Norwich University’s leadership in experiential education. SomeOAR VIBES final testing of Northfield, Vermont’s wastewater was also conducted.

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus, continues to challenge public health officials globally. Researchers have shown strong correlation between wastewater SARS-CoV-2 genetic material (RNA copy number) and COVID-19 clinical cases suggesting that wastewater may be a detection source for fragments of the virus in a population before clinical testing signals an outbreak.

Wastewater surveillance, the testing of wastewater influent for microorganisms and other contaminants, is being used worldwide to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus and has significant potential as an early warning system of communicable pathogens. Wastewater surveillance can also complement clinical surveillance in areas with limited testing capacity or resources and may be a cost-effective way to track virus circulation and disease transmission within communities.

wastewater 3 min
A Norwich University student gathers a campus wastewater sample during the Spring 2021 semester. The testing of wastewater influent for microorganisms and other contaminants, is being used worldwide to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus. (Photo by Mark Collier/Norwich University.)

VIBES recommendations:

  • Develop standardized testing methodologies for wastewater surveillance in Vermont including detection and variant sequencing
  • Expand the statewide wastewater testing capacity
  • Identify key community hot spots through wastewater monitoring
  • Develop a comprehensive sampling plan with participation from municipal wastewater treatment plants
  • Contribute data and/or findings to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Wastewater Surveillance System
  • Engage social science research methods to help illuminate the behaviors that lead to increased virus transmission within communities, and identify communication strategies to help support preventive approaches
  • Set up a statewide surveillance program for SARS-CoV-2 investigation and future targets
  • Identify, develop and implement COVID-19-specific disease transmission models including risk characterization and management

VIBES Members:

  • Marie Agan, Norwich University faculty, chemistry and University of Vermont graduate student medical lab science.
  • Appala Raju Badireddy, civil and environmental engineering, University of Vermont.
  • Julie Dragon, Vermont Integrative Genomics, University of Vermont.
  • Robert Fischer, water-quality superintendent, city of South Burlington.
  • John Handley, researcher, analyst, Translational Global Infectious Diseases Research Center, Vermont Integrative Genomics.
  • Karen Hinkle, Norwich University associate provost for research and Dana Professor of Biology.
  • James Jutras, water-quality superintendent, city of Essex Junction.
  • Tara Kulkarni, Norwich University faculty, civil and environmental engineering and director, Center for Global Resilience and Security.
  • Mark Lubkowitz, Michael’s College faculty, biology.
  • Amy Polaczyk, program manager, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Wastewater Management Division, Wastewater Management Program.
  • Bob Protivansky, chief operator wastewater treatment facility, city of Rutland.
  • Scott Tighe, Vermont Integrative Genomics, University of Vermont.
  • Isabelle Tomanelli, public health graduate student, University of Vermont.
  • Christine Vatovec, Larner College of Medicine, Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, Gund Institute for Environment, University of Vermont.

About Norwich University
Norwich University is a diversified academic institution that educates traditional-age students and adults in a Corps of Cadets and as civilians. Norwich offers a broad selection of traditional and distance-learning programs culminating in baccalaureate and graduate degrees. Norwich University was founded in 1819 by U.S. Army Capt. Alden Partridge of the and is the oldest private military college in the United States. Norwich is one of our nation's six senior military colleges and the birthplace of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). www.norwich.edu

VIBES Contact:
Dr. Karen Hinkle, associate provost for research and Dana Professor of Biology, Norwich University 802-485-2341, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Media contact:
Daphne Larkin
802-485-288
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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