Town allowed sample testing that helped launch Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Initiative

For more than a year, Norwich University worked to forestall COVID-19 breakouts on campus and in surrounding Northfield, Vermont, by testing wastewater for fragments of the novel coronavirus. The nonprofit Vermont news website VTDigger reported that Northfield has been invited to join a federal wastewater testing program.

As VTDigger reported last week, Northfield was tapped with Brighton, Canaan, Newport City, St. Albans and Springfield to enter the National Wastewater Surveillance System, established in fall 2020. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention runs the system with Fredericton, New Brunswick-based contractor LuminUltra Technologies and the Water Environment Federation.

In a statement, LuminUltra said it would start providing SARS-CoV-2 wastewater surveillance data to the federal system from 500 U.S. sites in December and continue through March.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said wastewater testing can portend COVID-19 outbreaks by up to seven days before confirmed cases appear in public health data. The agency has also said wastewater testing has helped detect other diseases, including polio, early. 

In Vermont, Burlington has tested sewer water for COVID-19 since August 2020. Norwich University’s Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Initiative started in fall 2020, about when Norwich faculty helped start the Vermont Initiative for Biological and Environmental Surveillance, a collaborative group including Vermont university faculty and wastewater directors and officials.

VIBES, which also includes St. Michael’s College and University of Vermont faculty, surveils wastewater for fragments of the novel coronavirus, aka SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, and develops wastewater-based COVID-19 risk assessment tools applicable to other emerging Vermont health hazards.

Goal met

At its start, VIBES named contributing to the National Wastewater Surveillance System as a goal.

“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,” Norwich University Associate Provost for Research and Dana Professor of Biology Dr. Karen Hinkle said at VIBES’ launch. “Now, given Vermont’s success at managing COVID-19, VIBES can help Vermont manage future emerging diseases and pathogens from environmental contaminants of concern.”

wastewater kulkarni min
Tara Kulkarni, an associate professor of engineering, worked with students on the Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Initiative. (Photo by Mark Collier/Norwich University.)

Norwich’s cross-disciplinary Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Initiative, which ran during the 2020-21 academic year, began with tests of Northfield water and continued with tests of campus water drawn from manholes. The project involved civil engineering and construction management students (to build equipment and conduct the wastewater sampling); chemistry and biochemistry (to analyze samples) and humanities students (to record podcasts and promote the project).

The project’s professors included its leader, Dr. Tara Kulkarni, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering who also directs the Center for Global Resilience and Security; Communications Lecturer Dr. Stephen Pite and Chemistry Lab Coordinator and Lecturer Marie Agan.

The emergence of vaccines and boosters and the university’s continued aggressive COVID-19 testing prompted the university to stop on-campus wastewater testing this academic year, Kulkarni said.

VTDigger reported that two of the six invited Vermont towns have joined the federal wastewater project, but National Wastewater Surveillance System representative Rachel West wouldn’t confirm which two.

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