As states begin to reopen, human waste could help guide policy decisions

Posted at 4:33 PM, May 20, 2020

Human waste could help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

More than 400 waste management facilities in 42 states are gathering samples of sewer water and sending them to a lab called BioBot Analytics in Boston for testing.

Scientists are hoping the tests can give a more inclusive picture of the pandemic as the CDC has reported less people are showing up to get tests in person.

"It was absolutely fascinating to me,” said Pieter Van Ry, director of a waste management facility that services southeast Denver, who has been sending waste water samples to BioBot since March. "I did not make the connection between the pandemic and the work we do at a waste water facility, but I’m glad we found the connection.”

Just this week, BioBot says its test numbers are consistently showing COVD-19 infection rates that are 10 times higher than the numbers the CDC is reporting. The company says it is constantly refining its process to make its analysis and projections more accurate, but says between the 400 facilities it gets waste water from, it is able to sample around 10 percent of the U.S. population--a number it says is large enough to offer credence to its data.

“We believe that the main use of our data in the immediate future will be to understand the impact of these policy decisions as adjust to our new reality,” said BioBot co-founder Mariana Matus. “[That new reality] is going to be balancing the mitigation, social distancing to keep the outbreak low, but also enabling the economy to operate to some level.”

BioBot has been testing waste for the virus's RNA, or genetic data, since early March. That genetic footprint can show up in feces three days after someone is infected with COVID-19, days before many people with the virus start showing symptoms. By identifying this and testing samples on a weekly basis Matus says it can identify hot spots in communities before in-person testing.

The CDC recently announced it was exploring testing waste water as a response to the pandemic, even though it was not currently doing so.

“We want to make this a tool where our leaders, the people making those policy decisions, have the best data available and can quickly react to our new reality,” Matus said.