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WMA Testing Wastewater for Signs of COVID-19 Virus

Medical science is giving communities new tools for tracking disease. (News illustration by Shutterstock)

Since February, the V.I. Waste Management Authority has been collaborating with Biobot Analytics Inc., a Boston-based company using wastewater epidemiology to collect COVID-19 data nationally, anonymously testing for COVID-19 markers within densely populated areas throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands.

During Tuesday’s meeting of the Waste Management board of directors, Executive Director Roger Merritt Jr. said the authority was trying to contribute something of benefit territorywide, which led to the contractual agreement with Biobot Analytics.

“We contracted some services with Biobot. They are like a top three or four company right now in the pharmaceutical industry. They are actually testing our wastewater … we have them doing testing for us, and they are giving us an idea of COVID; where it is at in the territory; how it relates to the rest of the country; and they can actually give us additional information,” Merritt said.

According to Biobot Analytics’ website, “SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes the COVID-19 infection] is shed in the stool of COVID-19 patients, making its way into our sewers.”

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The company analyzes the sewage through a sampling program to “determine the presence of infected individuals and estimate the number of cases,” Merritt said.

Ultimately, the company aims to “transform wastewater infrastructure into public health observatories.”

Alice Krall, the special assistant to the authority’s executive director, has been working on the collaboration and said five locations have been selected for testing.

“What they do, is they take the influent and test for COVID-19 markers. They found that COVID-19 markers will show approximately seven days prior to symptoms showing up. So it is very helpful in a lot of areas,” Krall said.

The authority has also teamed up with the V.I. Health Department so both agencies can benefit from the data collection.

“They do a charting where they put our data finding and juxtapose them next to the Health Department’s findings,” Krall said. “We find it correlates with the Health Department’s direct testing.”

Merritt told the board that the data derived from the wastewater testing is another tool government can use to better manage the spread of the virus, “and a less invasive tool.”

“You use the bathroom, and it is there, so we can test it to kind of see where the territory stands in relation to the national COVID rating, and also see if the variants are here.”

Because of the anonymity of the testing, Krall said the authority is able to do large-scale testing without the public having to do anything additional in their day. She added the authority is able to test in high-density areas, tourism heavy areas, and even public housing.

For three months Krall said the authority has been doing its own testing separate from Biobot Analytics, and has recently entered a 10-week, federally funded program that will also use wastewater epidemiology to track the spread of COVID-19 and variants.

“We are doing an interesting study right now with the Centers for Disease Control,” Krall said. “It’s a national study that will form a national database with the 50 states. 300 entities across the country, and we are the only Caribbean entity, the only Caribbean island that they are doing this testing with. One of the first of its kind using wastewater epidemiology that will track the progress of COVID in the United States, and now in the territory.”

The appeal of wastewater epidemiology as a means of data collection has trickled over to other government institutions, like public schools.

Krall said the authority has a meeting with Department of Education officials in hopes a collaboration can ensue between Biobot Analytics and the territory’s school districts. She said Biobot has worked with another school district and had tested “prior to the students coming back to school, two weeks before, and a week after. Then they could see if there were markers, or any cases not showing up, so they can prepare to test people in the eventuality it should happen.”

More information on Biotech Analytics Inc. or Waste Management is available on their websites.

https://www.biobot.io/

https://www.viwma.org/

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