When the Grand Princess cruise ship docked in Oakland California in early March,
carrying passengers and crew infected with coronavirus,
Eileen white faced a daunting task.
What is the director of wastewater for the utility,
that serves six hundred and eighty five thousand households in San Franciscos East Bay area.
They came into the Port of Oakland with a cruise ship full of waste,
and they needed to get rid of it,
and so we effectively treated you know some of the first coronavirus sewage,
detecting the virus and sewage is a necessary step toward effectively destroying it.
Soon it became clear that detection might be useful in other ways too.
Early on we were approached by a number of universities would,
we want to help, be part of the process,
and trying to figure out how sewage could be a useful tool,
as an early indicator the presence of corona virus in the community,
versus waiting for people to show up in the hospital,
patient testing on a scale necessary to control the virus,
has been hampered for many reasons,
not everyone is getting tested,
but everyone uses the bathroom.
Youre seeing in sewage before people are really showing the symptoms days and weeks before.
Whites team is collecting samples each week and sending them to multiple labs,
including the Nelson lab at the University of California Berkeley.
Were really interested in trends of increasing or decreasing infections,
and that would help guide decision making.
But getting useful data from raw sewage also has many challenges,
theres a lot of things that make wastewater complicated right so,
its not just poop and pee and wastewater,
its also rain water and laundry water and things that vary with time,
and so that will affect how dilute the virus is in the sample like how much we can detect.
Wastewater epidemiologists have successfully tracked polio and Ebola,
but the scale of the covid 19 crisis is spurring an unprecedented rapid response.
An international alliance of over 400 researchers is collaborating weekly on methods standards,
massachusetts based biobot analytics currently analyzes wastewater samples,
from 41 states in the u.s. using machine learning.
Wastewater data that you measured today,
is giving you an early warning indication of how many new covid 19 cases,
you will see in that community about seven days out.
This is because in the first few days of infection.
People often have no symptoms and are not getting tested,
but are still shedding the virus when they use the bathroom,
Wastewater gives you that window of opportunity.
Detecting outbreaks earlier can help health officials distribute resources and save lives.
The amount of value that people suddenly seeing wastewater,
I think it is refreshing to realize that it is this catchment of all of society,
and that we have a way of tracking important diseases.
Anything it will probably be used going well into the future as well,
The Nelson lab at Berkeley plans to monitor sewage on their own campus this fall,
to support the universitys safe reopening.
For VOA news Matt Dibble Berkeley California