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Utah Researchers Hope To Trace Coronavirus In Waste Water

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Researchers around the world, and here in Utah, have started testing waste water for the novel coronavirus, hoping it will help them estimate the number of infections in the community without having to test everyone.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has started a pilot program with three in-state universities to find out if it works.

Most people in our community will not be tested for coronavirus. Researchers think identifying the virus in our sewage at waste water treatment plants could be a good way to estimate the number of coronavirus infections in our communities.

Analyzing the waste headed to the treatment plant is one way researchers can track infectious diseases we flush away.

“We know there’s a very real possibility, that people are excreting virus whether they are symptomatic or not,” said Erica Gaddis, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality.

A team of local researchers said they want to find out if they can trace coronavirus infection levels by detecting it in our waste water. They started collaborating with the University of Utah, which pioneered the concept, and researchers from BYU and Utah State University.

“We are testing this concept at a number of facilities across Utah,” said Gaddis.

Researchers have found traces of the novel coronavirus in waste water in the United States and in Europe.

“The initial results show that we can detect the virus,” she said. “I should emphasize that the way that we are handling the samples, the virus is not live, so we’re just looking at the genetic material to see the infection levels and how they may vary across the state.”

The researchers have started a three-week pilot program at nine waste water treatment plants to see if that testing could be an effective tool for the public health system.

“If it works, if we are able to correlate the viral waste load in waste water or sewage to infection rates that are known in various communities across the state, then it could become a tool that our public health partners could use to inform some of their decision making,” said Gaddis.

The testing could be used to detect the virus if it returns, an early-warning tool to alert communities to new COVID-19 infections, and help them limit the potential damage to public health and the economy in the future.

“Certainly, we think we can see trends,” said Gaddis. “The question is whether we can really quantify and correlate that to the infection rates, so that’s what we’re trying to pilot right now.”

She said the testing highlights the good work that waste water treatment facilities do every day, and gives her division a chance to explore new ways to attack the virus.

“It is exciting to be able to have a role in potentially helping public health decisions being made,” the director said.

She said it’s a good time to remind everybody that our waste water treatment plants are effective in cleansing our water, and providing us safe drinking water.

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