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Penn State Wastewater Sampling Has Potential To Delay Coronavirus Outbreaks

What is brown, fluid, and smells like shit? Penn State’s latest coronavirus mitigation approach, that’s what.

Penn State researchers are testing and monitoring campus wastewater in an effort to delay potential coronavirus outbreaks several days before individuals exhibit symptoms of an infection.

According to researchers, wastewater sampling could minimize the virus’ spread and protect the health and safety of the community. Data is shared daily with Penn State’s Coronavirus Operations Control Center (COCC) and regularly with university leadership.

“Research has shown that people infected with SARS-CoV-2 shed the virus in their feces,” Heather Preisendanz, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, said. “As a result, sampling wastewater for the virus has the potential to give an overall snapshot of its prevalence in the community, as well as identify general locations where the virus is present.”

Sampling is done at the university’s main Wastewater Treatment Plant and near residence halls on campus by an interdisciplinary team of researchers and operations engineer at Penn State’s Office of the Physical Plant, David Swisher. Additionally, they are working with Cory Miller, executive director of the University Area Joint Authority, to monitor wastewater in the State College community.

Researchers are testing to see whether coronavirus prevalence is increasing or decreasing at a specific location. An increased concentration of the virus detected in the wastewater could mean there was a specific incident or it could be due to toilets that are being used by students once a week during their in-person classes. The variation in numbers makes it tough to pinpoint exact correlations.

“Individuals shed more or less virus through their feces depending on the severity of their infection and how long they have been infected; the amount of shedding can vary from person to person by an order of magnitude,” Tom Richard, director of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment, said. “Similarly, some people suffer from respiratory symptoms but never get the virus in their gastrointestinal systems. And while there is very little hard data about virus shedding patterns for people who are asymptomatic, indications are that some of those people are also shedding the virus.”

Specific manholes are targeted and five collection devices are programmed to collect water samples every five minutes for 24 hours. After samples are collected, PCR amplifies the genetic material and records the concentration of virus per milliliter of water to track the rate of increase in the concentration over time.

“While we can detect genetic material from fragments of the virus in raw sewage flowing into the treatment facility, prior studies have found that these virus fragments in raw wastewater influent are not infectious,” Richard said. “We have tested more than 20 samples of the treated water discharged from the plant and were not able to detect any fragments of virus in any of those samples. It is comforting to know that conventional wastewater treatment is very effective at destroying virus genetic material.”

Depending on the success of the initiative, Penn State may expand to Commonwealth Campuses and other facilities in the region.

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About the Author

Colleen Nersten

Colleen is a sophomore biology major from York, Pa and is one of Onward State's associate editors. She overuses the ~tilde~ and aspires to be no other than the great Guy Fieri. You can find Colleen filling up her gas tank at Rutter’s, the ~superior~ Pennsylvania gas station. Please direct any questions or concerns to [email protected]

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