Researchers working to detect COVID-19 in East Texas wastewater

The virus was detected in samples from Tyler area wastewater treatment plants
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Published: Jan. 6, 2022 at 6:49 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 6, 2022 at 8:54 PM CST

TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - By now, many of us are familiar with getting a COVID-19 test. But now, a different type of test for the virus is being conducted in East Texas. Researchers are finding the virus in our wastewater.

Dr. Michelle Crum is an assistant professor at the UT Health Science Center in Tyler. She’s among the researchers looking for COVID-19 in East Texas wastewater.

Crum says scientists first learned of its existence in wastewater towards the end of 2020. Since then, a small number of researchers around the country have started collecting samples from local wastewater plants.

“After we deactivate it in the lab by heat treating it, we then apply it to a column, and through some complicated chemistry, along with the science of magnetism, we’re able to isolate out the viruses within that wastewater,” Dr. Crum said.

It’s an intricate process that takes hours in the lab.

“From that point on, the sample is clean enough to then take a look and see if there are SARS-CoV-2 viruses that are a part of that wastewater sample that we had,” Dr. Crum said.

Dr. Crum says COVID-19 has been detected in Smith County’s wastewater. Finding viruses in the wastewater isn’t uncommon, but how can an airborne virus be detectable in our wastewater?

“It doesn’t just infect the respiratory tract, it can infect other organs and in humans, it typically also does infect part of the intestinal tract, and so we shed that and that is picked up in the sewage as it’s coming in,” Dr. Crum said.

The samples are currently coming from the Tyler area, but the hope is to eventually branch out to other plants in other East Texas counties.

They also hope to create maps showing areas where the virus is being detected in the wastewater and alert people who live in the area.

“That will allow us then to work with NET Health and say, let’s see if we can have a pop-up testing clinic, a vaccination clinic, education for the community to let them know that we predict that there’s gonna be a surge in this area,” Dr. Crum said.

Dr. Crum says they are looking to expand the wastewater surveillance program to three or four additional plants this month.

As for any risk to the drinking water supply, the Environmental Protection Agency says COVID-19 has not been detected in drinking water supplies, and the risk to those supplies remains slow.

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