A wastewater treatment facility (Photo: iStock)


An early warning system for COVID in communities

In February, 2020, when the world changed, Newsha Ghaeli, MArch’13, and her company quickly adapted.

Story by Sylvain Comeau

March 2021

In February, 2020, when the world changed, Newsha Ghaeli, MArch’13, and her company quickly adapted.

Within weeks, the U.S. company she co-founded in 2017, Biobot Analytics, had pivoted. It moved fast to help North American governments scrambling to deal with the spreading pandemic. Biobot analyzes wastewater for public health data.

“Previously, we had focused on the biggest public health crisis at the time, the opiod epidemic. Then, in February of 2020, research started to show that SARS-CoV-2 was excreted in stools. So, we dropped everything and developed the methodology to detect the virus in wastewater.”

The company uses quantitative polymerase chain reactions (QPCR), similar technology to that used for clinical testing for COVID.

“The difference is that we are using quantitative testing, whereas clinical testing is qualitative. We are quantifying the amount of the virus present in a sample.”

Biobot has analyzed sewage from 400 communities across North America, working with governments at the municipal, state and regional levels. Just as a doctor can perform a diagnosis on a patient through stool or urine samples, Biobot can diagnose problems in a community.

“One of the communities we work with in the U.S. is a county with 12 unique geographies,” says Ghaeli. “Based on the data we collect that week, they are directing their mobile testing vans to the communities with the highest viral load.”

She notes that it is crucial to gather data quickly, during the first days of an infection.

“Shedding the virus in stools occurs within days of being infected, before the onset of symptoms. That data can provide an early warning system, alerting governments to a spike in infections in a given area. They can move quickly to initiate new stay-at-home measures, or prepare hospitals for a surge of new patients.”

Biobot also plays an important role during the vaccination efforts now underway.

“As we enter this period of vaccination, we can answer questions about vaccine effectiveness. We can monitor areas 16 months after everyone has been vaccinated.”

Ghaeli envisions this becoming a permanent tool in public health policy, beyond the pandemic. It may also prevent future epidemics, or warn governments at the very beginning of one.

“We believe wastewater epidemiology will be in the future of every city. It should be a permanent layer of infrastructure embedded on our sewer systems, to help us stay pro-active when it comes to community and public health. Our data can act like a smoke detector.

“We can look at all sorts of human health indicators in sewage. We’ve already started testing for the influenza virus. Imagine if we can prepare health care systems for the onslaught when we see peak influenza levels, while employers tell people to work at home – and we now know that people can be productive that way.”

Wastewater analysis is supplemental to COVID testing, not a substitute.

“We can use wastewater to conduct a form of pooled testing. You can test an entire community, and, based on what you are seeing, you can be more selective and targeted in how you are now deploying clinical tests.”

Governments can also be more targeted when implementing policies such as curfews and closing certain kinds of businesses in some areas.

“I’m from Toronto, so I’ve been following the latest shutdown measures in Ontario. A one-size-fits-all shutdown doesn’t work. You can’t, for example, treat rural areas the same as densely populated urban areas. Government decision makers need public health data that is much more granular. Then we can make recommendations for each area that is appropriate to their individual situation.”

Looking ahead, Ghaeli feels that wastewater testing needs to be further institutionalized.

“Currently, the funding is mostly coming from the operating budget of the water and wastewater facilities. That’s not the long-term solution; it needs to be embedded in public health or public safety at the state, federal or provincial level. While public health is at the front of everyone’s mind, we have a window of opportunity to build resilience in our public health infrastructures. Permanent wastewater testing should be one of them.”

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