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An illustration of the coronavirus. Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The coronavirus has been found in Tacoma sewage. It could help scientists track the pandemic

Researchers at a non-profit biotech startup in Tacoma have found traces of the novel coronavirus in the city’s sewage, opening up new possibilities for tracking and monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic. The testing is being led by Center for Urban Waters collaborator David Hirschberg who directs the RAIN biotech incubator in Tacoma, along with RAIN’s principal scientist Stanley Langevin and recent University of Washington Tacoma graduate Ryan Culbert who ran the tests.

“We found it,” said Hirschberg, who began collecting samples of raw sewage and sludge from the city’s Central Wastewater Treatment Plant in recent weeks. “The [coronavirus] is in there. There is no way it can’t be.” Hirschberg said the levels of the virus were very low and “we don’t think it is infectious,” but the presence of the virus may help scientists in the battle to identify infection hot spots around the world. The evidence was found in raw sewage influent referred to as “water sludge” by wastewater treatment officials.

Stuart Magoon, the assistant division manager of Environmental Services for the City of Tacoma said he had been informed by Hirschberg that the virus had been found in Tacoma sludge, but that its presence did not pose any additional threat to workers who were already taking standard precautions. “There are plenty of things in sewage that you don’t want to get exposed to,” he said, “so the technicians are already very careful.” In addition, experts believe the coronavirus was found at such tiny amounts that it was not in an active or virulent form.

Hirschberg, who specializes in environmental monitoring for diseases is an independent researcher who has worked for many organizations, including the U.S. Department of Defense, to develop monitoring systems for dangerous pathogens such as anthrax. His group received permission from the City of Tacoma to test sewage in the hope of developing a “tripwire” for tracking the outbreak.

“We really believe this could be an early warning system,” Hirschberg says. Currently, most testing, where it is available, focuses on individuals, but Hirschberg says the ability to find coronavirus in the environment would allow health officials to focus their testing or identify when new outbreaks occurred. That could be especially helpful for catching many cases where people may have no symptoms, or in the early stages of the infection before patients are identified. There are currently more than 330 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Tacoma and more than 10,200 in the state of Washington.

Hirschberg could imagine setting up inexpensive tests in different communities where health officials could mobilize to protect local schools or start more aggressive testing in certain areas. Other scientists around the world are looking for similar ways to test for the coronavirus in the environment. An article in the April 3rd issue of Nature described how wastewater could be used as an “early warning sign if the virus returns.” Countries such as the Netherlands are already planning to step up wastewater monitoring for the novel coronavirus, the article says.

In addition to sewage, Hirschberg’s group at RAIN is hoping to detect the coronavirus on surfaces and in the air. His group has developed similar tests for dangerous pathogens, such as anthrax and other, earlier forms of SARS. “We have the tests and we have the technology,” Hirschberg says. However, government regulations for clinical laboratories have limited the ability of small labs such as RAIN to conduct testing. The expenses of following the government’s CLIA (Clinical Laboratory improvement Amendments) guidelines, for example, have been prohibitive. “It is absolutely slowing our response,” he says. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, Hirschberg has been working with CLIA-certified labs to share ideas and improve the efficiency of testing and monitoring. “People are dying every day,” he says. “This kind of testing takes time and money, but we can’t afford to wait. We just need to start saving lives.”

Other long-term surveillance by Hirschberg’s group could include analyzing bat guano in the region to see if the virus or a version of it has migrated back into its original host organism. Epidemiologists believe coronavirus originated in bats in China.

Hirschberg says his approach to finding pathogens in the environment is similar to how scientists at the Center for Urban Waters and other groups use cutting edge analytical instrumentation and innovative data mining tools to look for markers of human activity, such as toxic chemicals in Puget Sound. Few scientists monitor for pathogens, he says, but that may be changing as the coronavirus raises public awareness of the impacts of disease. Hirschberg sees environmental testing as a critical tool for monitoring all sorts of outbreaks, including those in wildlife. “We should be very careful when things are dying around us,” Hirschberg says, whether it is salmon or orcas in Puget Sound, or humans facing a pandemic.