UB, Erie County sleuth for COVID-19 in wastewater

Workers collect samples of wastewater. Samples gathered from roughly a dozen sites throughout Erie County, including several at UB, are taken to UB faculty member Ian Bradley’s lab, where specialized equipment is used to detect COVID-19.

by Cory Nealon

Published June 14, 2021

The key to spotting and stopping a future COVID-19 flare-up — or other infectious diseases like seasonal flu or hepatitis A — could lie within wastewater.

“This is community-wide, pooled surveillance testing. It’s a really, really useful tool in understanding what’s going on in our community. ”
Ian Bradley, assistant professor
Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, and UB RENEW Institute

Ian Bradley

That was the takeaway from a virtual news conference hosted on June 10 by UB and Erie County.

Since last fall, county officials have been working with Ian Bradley, assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, to examine the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in wastewater.

Officials have been gathering samples from roughly a dozen sites throughout the county, including several at UB. The samples are taken to Bradley’s North Campus lab, where he and students use specialized equipment to detect the virus. The information is then shared on a COVID-19 wastewater dashboard, which was made public yesterday.

Because people often shed traces of SARS-CoV-2 before they’re symptomatic, it’s possible the work could help identify a potential outbreak days before it occurs, thus giving officials critical time to prevent further spread of the disease.

“This is communitywide, pooled surveillance testing. It’s a really, really useful tool in understanding what’s going on in our community,” said Bradley, who also holds an appointment in the UB RENEW Institute and noted that scientists for years have used similar tools to detect the presence of opioids, polio and other diseases in wastewater.

Joseph Fiegl, deputy commissioner of the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning, Division of Sewerage Management, demonstrated how to use the dashboard. Users can zoom in on specific collection sites and view historic and current information, which he said aligns with the rise and drop of infection rates in Erie County.

“Wastewater data may be a leading indicator on increases of infections,” he said.

Erie County health Commissioner of Health Gale Burstein said wastewater testing data compliment conventional COVID-19 testing, and that it cannot be used for individual testing. She also said the county is working with the UB Genomics and Bioinformatics Core lab to develop tools to monitor the prevalence of COVID-19 variants in wastewater.

Map of the eight sampling service areas; three locations are in the UB North Campus area.

“Everybody uses the bathroom at least once [a day], and hopefully flushes the toilet, so hopefully we have access to all the COVID-19 that is present in the community through our wastewater surveillance,” said Burstein, also a clinical professor of pediatrics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB.

The effort builds upon a pilot program UB launched last semester in which engineers tested weekly wastewater samples from sewer lines that serve parts of Greiner Hall, South Lake Village apartments and Goodyear Hall.

A committee working on the matter is investigating implementing wastewater testing as a means to monitor the long-term prevalence of the virus and its variants among the campus community.