College and university campuses around the world are striving to find a way to hold classes without students, faculty and other staffers getting infected with COVID-19, as long-distance learning via ZOOM is not always a good alternative.
Researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa now offer a better way to prevent the spread of the virus on campus. As part of the “Creating an open and safe campus” initiative, which was launched this week, Technion’s management decided to implement a technology that samples the campus’s sewage system and detects COVID-19 outbreaks on campus at an early stage. As a result, further spread of the virus can be avoided.
The technology was developed by a research group led by Prof. Eran Friedler of the environmental and water engineering department of the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering, with researchers from the Health Ministry, Ben-Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev in Beersheba and the Kando company. The system monitors SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater and provides data on outbreaks and their geographic location on campus – information essential for early warning and for blocking the spread of the virus.
“It is extremely important to bring students, faculty members and staff back to campus in order to return to a healthy and safe routine of teaching and researching on campus alongside the virus,” said Technion president Prof. Uri Sivan.
“Until a vaccine or effective treatments are found, we must break the chain of transmission through early detection of outbreak locations and monitoring the virus in the sewage system will help us in this mission. The Technion campus is one of the first places to implement this innovative technology for constant monitoring of the coronavirus. We will receive up-to-date information in near-real time regarding coronavirus outbreaks and their locations on campus. As a result, we will be able to deal with them at an early stage and block the spread,” Sivan continued.
One of the important advantages of monitoring the coronavirus through the sewage system is the rapid and early mapping of a large population, including asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. Since the virus is present in human waste, it finds its way to the sewage system naturally through defecation. The continuous monitoring is expected to make it possible to prevent recurrences of the virus at an early stage. Wastewater-based epidemiology that monitors bacteria and viruses already exists in the world, and in Israel polio viruses were discovered in the sewage in 2013 – which led to a vaccination campaign that blocked its spread and prevented an outbreak.
“The sewage system is designed in a hierarchical manner, making it possible to divide each zone into smaller areas,” explained Friedler. “Consequently, we can monitor the wastewater at specific points and determine the coronavirus concentrations in that area. In this way, we can focus on areas with high infection rates without testing the population itself and without needing to reach many individuals, at least until the location of the outbreak is identified.”
The Technion campus project will take samples from 10 manholes via the Kando company’s smart, automatic sampling system and will detect outbreaks according to the concentration of virus RNA in the wastewater. The samples undergo a chemical and microbial-molecular analysis: they are transferred to a special lab, where the virus RNA undergoes a process of concentration and extraction from the sewage, followed by detection and quantification using quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR). This is a laboratory technique of molecular biology based on the polymerase chain reaction. Most PCR applications focus on turning a small amount of DNA into a larger amount of DNA, but it also limits how informative PCR can be. Quantitative PCR adds the use of a fluorescent dye and a fluorometer to make the results more accurate.
The tests will be carried out at the end of each sampling day, and the findings will be used for evaluating ongoing vulnerabilities and determining priorities for extensive surveys of people coming to the campus.
Last May, Friedler’s research group partnered with researchers from BGU, the Health Ministry and Kando in the first city-scale pilot project of its kind in Israel, which took place in Ashkelon – a city of 150,000 residents. Since Ashkelon is divided into neighborhoods, sampling was carried out in selected sewage manholes. The virus was detected in the city’s wastewater, and the researchers successfully identified different concentrations of the virus, which indicated different levels of infection in different neighborhoods. In addition, they succeeded in detecting the outbreak of a second wave in the city before it was discovered through traditional testing methods.
A comprehensive nationwide study is currently underway involving sampling of sewage systems of 14 Israeli cities, with the goal to get a clear picture of which cities and neighborhoods have COVID-19 patients and to improve the methodology. In the future, this technology will provide a more precise image and will detect COVID-19 outbreaks at early stages, so that general lockdowns can be avoided.
“Our experiments show that the system we developed is effective in identifying hotspots of coronavirus outbreaks, and in the future we will also be able to use it for early detection of other diseases,” said Friedler. To maximize the monitoring of COVID-19 outbreaks at the Technion, protect the health of the dormitory residents and reduce the spread of the virus as much as possible, Technion has put a coronavirus PCR testing site at the disposal of students, in collaboration with Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. The tests are carried out under strict privacy protocols and will complete the overall picture on campus.”