UTSA researchers see success in first phase of tracing COVID-19 in wastewater

“We’re trying to see if you are able to monitor the concentration of this virus within the community.”

SAN ANTONIO – Researchers at the University of Texas are surveilling what you are flushing down the toilet to monitor the spread of the coronavirus, and so far, their research is proving to be successful.

Wastewater surveillance isn’t new. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this type of surveillance is a method for early detection of other diseases, such as polio. Many universities across the nation have also used wastewater surveillance to track COVID cases among students.

UTSA has partnered with the San Antonio River Authority to collect weekly samples over a 24-hour period from its treatment plants.

The first phase included testing the Salitrillo Wastewater Treatment Plant in Converse.

“We’re trying to see if you are able to monitor the concentration of this virus within the community,” said Vikram Kapoor, assistant professor in UTSA’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Samples collected between June and August showed that COVID-19 levels found in wastewater matched the trend of COVID-19 infections that Metro Health reported.

“There’s data basically showing that there’s markers showing that when the city’s seeing spikes, we’re seeing the same spikes in our service area,” said Amy Middleton, utilities manager at San Antonio River Authority.

Kappor said wastewater surveillance can also identify hot spots in communities that could go undetected, and can identify people who many not be showing symptoms.

“It can also detect the presence of asymptomatic individuals because there have been reports that a lot of asymptomatic individuals may not show any manifestation of the infection, but they excrete the virus in their stools,” Kapoor said.

Researchers will now focus on the River Authority’s Martinez II Wastewater Treatment Plant.

“We’re hoping that we’re able to facilitate some good data that we can use to inform decisions on how to tackle this virus in the future,” said Middleton.

Kapoor said there is no evidence that people can contract the virus directly via wastewater.

UTSA received nearly $160,000 through the CARES Act to do this research.

They hope to finish the project by the end of the year.

RELATED: UTSA study shows airborne coronavirus particles could travel more than a mile

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Tiffany Huertas is a reporter for KSAT 12 known for her in-depth storytelling and her involvement with the community.

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