Wastewater Covid-19 concentrations, related measures, ZIP code 15701, April 8-Sept. 19, 2020
Source: Borough of Indiana, Pa. The vertical axis represents the number of Covid-19 viral copies per liter of sampled wastewater (times 1,000). It does not reflect individual infections. The horizontal axis reflects chronology. Click to enlarge.
By David Loomis
INDIANA – Scatological references were inevitable. Last week’s local pandemic oozed news by, shall we say, the process of elimination.
The news source was the borough’s wastewater treatment plant, where Biobot Analytics, a Cambridge, Mass., startup, has been analyzing the community’s effluent for the presence of Covid-19 RNA since spring.
“Everybody poops and pees, every day,” Biobot explains on its website. “We analyze viruses, bacteria and chemical metabolites that are excreted in urine and stool and collected in sewers. This information is a readout of our health and well-being as a community. We map this data, empowering communities to tackle public health proactively.” (Note for local policymakers: Biobot performs similar analyses for communities plagued by opioid misuse.)
Health proactivity should be welcome to Indiana County, where policymakers have struggled to speak with a reliably coherent public voice since the first Covid-19 death was recorded here on April 8.
Bungled coronavirus testing and contact tracing by federal officials have trickled down to Indiana County, Pa., where nasal-swab methods have been plagued by delayed turnaround times, supply shortages, fits and starts. The Covid-19 test numbers needed to make informed policy decisions here have been too low and too slow.
Biobot, the new testing outfit in town, says its wastewater sampling aims to complement clinical nasal-swabbing, not to replace it. Biobot’s method is comparatively cheaper, the company says. An Indiana borough administrator reported receiving the first two months of wastewater sampling for free; continuing samples will be paid for with federal Covid-19 relief funds administered through the Community Development Block Grant program. And Biobot’s methodology may be safer. A federal Centers for Disease Control spokeswoman told Bloomberg News that standard wastewater-treatment practices “should render the coronavirus inactive.”
WHAT DO BIOBOT’s Covid-19 RNA data tell local policymakers? As the graph above suggests, ZIP code 15701 is a hot spot for viral infection and has been hot since Aug. 26, the start of the fall semester at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Moreover, the graph forecasts a further rise in infection.