Scientists and public health officials are constantly on the lookout for new strains of COVID-19.
And some of them are looking in places most of us don’t even want to think about.
UNLV Medical School Associate Professor Edwin Oh and a team of researchers from UNLV are working with the Southern Nevada Water Authority to collect and screen wastewater.
Researchers around the country have been testing wastewater for several months because traces of the virus show up in sewage before they show up in medical testing programs.
However, UNLV's team is delving even deeper, Oh said.
“The difference with our system is that we’re actually sequencing the various viral strains from sewage, and the goal is to really track the presence of the virus in our sewage system, and also, the potential evolution of various CoV-2 viral strains,” he said.
Oh and his group of researchers have extracted virus DNA from the wastewater and are using it to identify different strains of the virus.
They are looking for changes to the DNA structure. Those changes or mutations could make the virus more infectious or proliferate faster. Oh said, at this point, they don't know what the mutations they have found might do or what they might mean to the effectiveness of a vaccine.
What they have learned from their surveillance is that cases in the community follow jumps in the virus in wastewater.
“We’ve observed that every time we see an uptick in cases in the valley we also see an uptick in the signal in the wastewater,” he said.
In Las Vegas, the team is using samples gathered from the wastewater treatment plant. That gives them a general overview of the entire valley.
However, Oh believes the testing could be used in a more specific way.
Oh and his team worked with a university in Arizona to track wastewater at various campus buildings, and they were able to track the virus in asymptomatic students returning to school.
“We’re putting together a publication now to show that this is a surveillance program that does work to potentially limit outbreaks, and it’s a surveillance program that can be done to track various genomes, various strains that are cropping up in different parts of the nation,” he said.
He envisions a time when the wastewater tracking program would work together with public health contact tracing programs to know where the virus is increasing in specific neighborhoods.
“The way I see this program is certainly something that is not done in isolation,” he said.
Oh is applying for funding from the National Institutes of Health for a number of different projects connected to wastewater testing, including a study to see when the virus becomes dormant in wastewater.
Resources to expand and improve the testing program could help everyone fight the pandemic, he said.
“We think we have something that is quite useful and inexpensive that’s up and running,” Oh said.
Edwin Oh, Associate Professor, UNLV School of Medicine