On April 29, 2020

Rutland tests sewage for virus fragments

By Katy Savage

Rutland city is looking at fecal matter to determine how widespread the outbreak of Covid-19 is locally.

The city is one of 150 communities across 30 states participating in research being conducted by Biobot, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-based start-up company.

“Studies show that SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing Covid-19, is shed in the stools and thus collecting in our city’s sewers,” according to Biobot’s website. “Biobot believes that collecting data from sewage will enable communities to, first and foremost, measure the scope of the outbreak independent from patient testing or hospital reporting.”

Rutland City Department of Public Works Commissioner Jeff Wennberg said he collects samples of the city’s wastewater every week and sends three test tubes to Biobot as part of a three-week study. Biobot then uses technology that counts the number of RNA fragments in the wastewater samples to estimate the number of infections there is in the community. Biobot takes into account the normal daily flows of the sewage and the population of the community.

“It’s amazing… there’s all kinds of contaminants in (the wastewater),” Wennberg said. “It’s a soup of nasty stuff…. [Biobot] is able to not only find, but count the strands of RNA that could be attributed to the virus.”

There are about 20,000 people on the wastewater system in Rutland, Wennberg said. The study costs $1,080.

“I’m quite comfortable that the information will be worth every penny,” Wennberg said.

There were a total of 862 Covid-19 cases in Vermont as of Tuesday, April 28, according to the Vermont Department of Health, with 13 cases in Rutland city and 44 in Rutland County. While the state now says it has enough tests, they are limited only to those displaying symptoms. In contrast, the sewer tests can measure the health of the entire community and can help predict outbreaks before they happen.

“What this does is give another useful piece of information to the policy makers,” Wennberg said.

Wennberg heard about Biobot from a Vermont Department of Agriculture email.

“We looked into and said, ‘yeah we want to (participate),’” he said.

Wennberg applied to the study online, answering a series of questions about the community. He was initially turned down for the study, but then approved.

“We fit something their study needed,” he said.

Wennberg said he’s already received partial test results back, but declined to comment or share them yet. “We don’t want to raise alarms or hopes unrealistically until we have all the results.”

He expected all three sets of results would be complete in the next 2-3 weeks.

Some preliminary results from other towns show the outbreak is far more widespread than expected. Emily O’Brien, a spokesperson for Biobot, declined to say where the other test locations were, but said the company hopes to test more than 10,000 sewer facilities in the near future.

“It’s brand new,”Wennberg said.

Biobot also has similar technology to measure traces of drugs in sewers to the opioid epidemic.

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