FORT COLLINS, Colo. (KDVR) — Colorado may soon be able to detect COVID-19 outbreaks in the state several days before anyone even feels sick.
The key to early detection and early warning systems may come from an unlikely source: the toilet.
“If there’s an increase in the number of infected people, the first place that you’re going to see that is actually in the sewage,” Colorado State University professor of microbiology Carol Wilusz told FOX31.
“The reason that we get a heads-up and early warning is that if you’re infected with COVID it actually starts shedding in the feces within a couple of days, where the actual respiratory symptoms don’t start for like a week, 10 days,” she said.
Wilusz has been working since the middle of May leading a research team at CSU to develop a system to do large-scale testing of sewage to detect potential COVID-19 hotspots. Fort Collins company GT Molecular is also playing a key role in the project.
In June, they began collecting samples from Fort Collins waste water treatment facilities to make sure their test is ready to roll out across the Front Range.
With funding from both CSU and the State of Colorado, by the end of July, Wilusz’s team will be collecting raw sewage samples two times per week from 19 facilities between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, including Denver, Aurora and Boulder.
“It will be shipped overnight on ice to keep it cold and keep any viruses happy,” Wilusz said. “We’re going to filter the sewage in order to get rid of all the big lumps in it and then it’s going to be concentrated.”
Once the concentrated samples are ready for testing, the lab will use a piece of equipment called a droplet digital PCR machine. The machine allows scientists to measure the amount of COVID-19 present in the sample.
“What we hope for in a healthy city where there are low levels of virus, we’ll only detect a few copies of the virus,” Wilusz said.
Samples with significantly more presence of the virus may indicate a higher number of people infected within that waste water district.
“We may be able to pick up hotspots and outbreaks before they are allowed to spread,” she said. “We’ll be able to see the virus actually before there are increases in the number of people reporting to hospital with symptoms.”
The test will not, however, be able to detect how many people are infected with COVID-19 in a certain area. Instead, it will show relative levels over time.
The extra warning time may prove critical in helping areas stop an outbreak from getting worse.
“We’re optimistic that this approach will allow us to monitor populations without it being hugely expensive,” Wilusz said.
Testing sewage is not new. According to Wilusz, in the United States it is primarily used to track drug usage. Outside of the U.S. it has been done to detect outbreaks of polio.