WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ore. — With every flush of the toilet, hundreds of thousands of people in Oregon are helping scientists track and study COVID-19.
“The dead viruses are actually shed by the body,” said Dr. Ken Williamson, the director research and innovation for Clean Water Services, which serves Washington County. “They are passed out of the body by the feces.”
That’s right, COVID-19’s genetic makeup can be detected in human waste.
The science is nothing new. Taking samples of wastewater is known as “sewer surveillance.” It’s been done for years and can tell scientists a lot about what’s happening in our bodies.
Now, researchers believe it’s going to be a powerful tool in the fight against the coronavirus.
“You can make an estimate of how many people in our community (have been infected with COVID-19) by taking one sample a week,” Williamson said.
Several cities and counties around Oregon are participating in studies to analyze the prevalence of COVID-19 in their communities, including Clean Water Services and the city of Albany.
Samples of untreated sewage are collected on a weekly basis and sent to Biobot, an MIT-based startup that churns out data about epidemiology in wastewater.
The company told FOX 12, “Biobot combines science with data, analytics and artificial intelligence that, at scale, can make predictions about public health trends, such as whether COVID-19 is likely to spread or decrease in counties across the country.”
“Our first sampling we had an estimated 1,500 number of cases,” said David Gilbey, the environmental services manager for the city of Albany’s public works department.
In Albany and Washington County, Biobot’s data is already giving government leaders a snapshot of the virus’ spread this past month through their communities.
Williamson said the wastewater proves that COVID-19 cases are still on the rise in Washington County.
“Over that month, the values went from near zero to very measurable values right now,” Williamson said.
In Washington County, researchers are not just casting a wide net but also zooming in to collect data on particular neighborhoods or even single facilities.
“What we’ve done is identified 15 areas of Washington County that we’re now sampling. They vary in size from a single retirement home up to an area about half the size of Beaverton,” Williamson said.
“We’re looking at particular institutions, a hospital, a retirement home, a wealthy neighborhood, a poor neighborhood, in industrial area, a food processing area,” Williamson added.
But sewage experts also stress that the data isn’t perfected yet, telling FOX 12 the models are evolving as does the science of interpreting the numbers.
“We’re really focused on longer-term trends then the instantaneous results,” Gilbey said.
But where there’s rapid research and dedication, there’s also hope that what we flush away can guide us through a pandemic.
“This is immensely satisfying and is feels important to be able to contribute in some way,” Williamson said.
Clean Water Services, in partnership with Oregon State University, was also recently awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to study COVID-19 particles in wastewater.