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Stony Brook University researchers turn to sewers to study COVID-19

Researchers at Stony Brook University are taking sewage samples across Suffolk County in an effort to detect COVID-19 outbreaks before they show up through testing or in hospitals. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

Chris Gobler and Arjun Venkatesan of Stony Brook University are not the only scientists on the lookout for signs the new coronavirus is regaining strength in New York. But they may be the only ones looking in the sewers of Suffolk County.

While the pandemic has kept many Long Islanders stuck at home since the spring, Gobler, a biologist, and Venkatesan, a chemist, have spent the past six months exploring the contents of wastewater pipes from West Babylon to Riverhead. They are watching for signals COVID-19 is on the rise again, and for any other insights a toilet flush can provide during this global health emergency.

People infected with the virus shed traces of it in their stool, even those not showing symptoms, Gobler and Venkatesan explained in an interview. That makes a sewage system serving tens or hundreds of thousands of people a valuable, if unappealing, place to assess how widespread the virus is. The researchers say wastewater could even help identify outbreaks of COVID-19 before other forms of testing reveal them.

"The virus is showing up in the wastewater early, and it’s showing up for people who might not even know that they have it," said Gobler, a professor of coastal ecology and the director of the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology. "If the levels are going up, and that’s not seen yet in the hospitals, it could be an early warning sign that a second wave is coming."

The method is not unique. New York State in August allocated $500,000 to a wastewater testing pilot program for communities upstate. Colleges around the country, including some in New York’s public university system, are checking their sewers for early signs of outbreaks as well. Stony Brook plans to do the same.

But Gobler and Venkatesan, whose research is being funded by Stony Brook, may be the first scientists to apply the technique to monitoring the pandemic on Long Island. Since the spring, they have taken regular samples from wastewater treatment plants in West Babylon, Patchogue, Riverhead and a pump station near Stony Brook University, which together serve about 400,000 Long Islanders.

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While the virus likely does not remain infectious very long or at all in wastewater, the work is not without perils, the scientists said.

"It smells bad," acknowledged Venkatesan, a professor of environmental engineering and an associate director at the Center for Clean Water Technology. "This is going to be the messiest research ever done."

And with the researchers collecting at least two liters of wastewater per site, per day of testing, the center’s storage freezers are filling up.

"We’re certainly running out of space," Venkatesan said.

But such issues are worth the hassle, given what waste could tell the public about the health crisis, he said.

"A pandemic happens once in a hundred years," Venkatesan said. "These samples are going to be extremely valuable to study."

They already are. Since the school year began, officials from the State University of New York said they have detected increased virus levels in wastewater at two campuses.

One was SUNY Oneonta, where researchers saw an uptick in the virus in sewage samples taken near the upstate college before an outbreak shut down the campus for the rest of the semester.

"We saw the signal about two days prior to becoming aware of a large number of infected students," said Frank Middleton, director of the molecular analysis core facility at SUNY Upstate Medical University. "The signal was coming in the wastewater."

More than 700 people have tested positive for the virus since Aug. 28 at Oneonta, which sent students home to learn remotely in early September.

After a recent uptick in COVID-19 levels in the wastewater of SUNY Cobleskill, the college tested nearly 700 students and faculty for the virus, according to a SUNY news release. Four people at Cobleskill have tested positive for the virus since Aug. 28, an online SUNY database shows.

Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan, said researchers long have looked at human waste to understand public health. He cited the revelation that a cholera outbreak in London in the mid-19th century was tied to a water supplier downstream from a sewage-filled section of the River Thames.

But the precision with which scientists can now study our waste — the ability to look at specific microbes — is one thing that sets apart the current COVID-19 surveillance in sewers from historical precedents, he said.

"There’s just a world of wonder in stool, there really is," Markel said. "But it takes a really special person to want to study it."

The main finding of Gobler and Venkatesan’s research is that the prevalence of COVID-19 in wastewater has mirrored the rise and fall of the virus in the region. In the spring, they were seeing quite a bit in the wastewater. Over the summer, hardly any.

They expect to learn even more from their research as the pandemic continues, and to share their findings with health departments. Venkatesan, for example, is analyzing their samples to understand what medicines people are taking to treat cases of the virus. If the scientists do see rising virus levels, they could also take samples "upstream" in the sewage system to pinpoint the specific communities driving the increase.

In any case, testing at the municipal treatment plants will continue, Gobler said. That’s welcome news to Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri, who said he saw opening his village’s plant to the researchers as a way for his community to do its part in combating the pandemic.

"It’s imperative that we do as much as we can to find out the sources and the locations that it’s coming from," he said of the virus. "Anything that little places like Patchogue can do to help is what we do."

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