Wastewater helping battle coronavirus pandemic
by MARK HYMAN, Sinclair Broadcast Group
WASHINGTON (SBG) - As the country searches for ways to quickly expand coronavirus testing in our communities, scientists are turning to the sewer for answers.
Rosa Inchausti runs a ground-breaking program in Tempe, Arizona that's using wastewater as an early warning system, identifying and isolating coronavirus hotspots before some residents even know they’re sick.
It’s an effort that was initially conceived here two years ago to battle the opioid pandemic.
Dr. Rolf Halden from Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute designed the program. He told us wastewater contains a goldmine of information so he expanded testing.
"Last year, we set up an early warning system to monitor infectious diseases like the flu. And so this observatory that is based on wastewater is now paying dividends in also tracking the COVID-19 pandemic."
Halden says his team can detect COVID-19 hotspots in wastewater in a matter of hours, not days.
The system identifies microscopic evidence of the virus and is so sensitive it can detect a single carrier of a disease in a population of as many as 2 million. A valuable tool, he told us, with diseases like coronavirus where so many carriers are asymptomatic.
Officials can also pinpoint where the disease is coming from by sampling upstream sewer lines and honing in on hotspots at the neighborhood level — and even down to a specific building. Halden says this is not just effective - it’s also affordable.
"The real power is that it's so cheap and it's fast. And it's an early warning system. And, you know, you see the problem before it manifests in disease and death."
Halden believes that, if fully funded, the Biodesign Institute could implement the same testing system they’ve built in Tempe at the more than 100,000 wastewater treatment plants worldwide.