UB will expand COVID-19 wastewater surveillance in Western New York

A student works in a lab holding a test tube of wastewater that will be analyzed for COVID-19.

Since late 2020, engineers have been working with Erie County to monitor the prevalence of the virus that causes COVID-19 in and around Buffalo. Credit: Douglas Levere

By Peter Murphy

Release Date: February 9, 2022

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Ian Bradley head shot.

Ian Bradley

Yinyin Ye head shot.

Yinyin Ye

“Monitoring wastewater can provide an early warning to future pandemics and potential variants of viruses. ”
Yinyin Ye, assistant professor of environmental engineering
University at Buffalo School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

BUFFALO, N.Y. – University at Buffalo engineers will expand wastewater surveillance monitoring of SARS-CoV-2 in Western New York.

Since late 2020, engineers have been working with Erie County to monitor the prevalence of the virus that causes COVID-19 in and around Buffalo. The effort buttresses data collected at hospitals and other health care providers that inform the region’s infection rate, and it can serve as an early-warning system for changes in infection dynamics.

Thanks to two recently announced partnerships – one led by the New York State Department of Health and Syracuse University, the other by Virginia-based Ceres Nanosciences – UB will have additional tools that will allow engineers to conduct more testing in a more efficient manner, including bringing wastewater monitoring to region’s the four other counties.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are funding initiatives to build national wastewater testing capacity throughout the United States,” says Ian Bradley, PhD, assistant professor in environmental engineering and RENEW faculty. “Based on the criteria, and our ongoing work surveilling wastewater in Erie County, Western New York was an ideal fit.”

Bradley and Yinyin Ye, PhD, assistant professor of environmental engineering, are leading this effort, and a team of undergraduate and graduate students will perform the work.

Ceres’ partnership boosts efficiency, training for students

Ceres is a privately held company that received $8.2 million from the NIH to enhance wastewater surveillance and testing capacity throughout the country. With the grant, it designated nine wastewater centers of excellence facilities nationwide, including UB.

“The centers are a mix of academic and commercial organizations, and the plan is to extend current wastewater surveillance and testing to rural areas, tribal lands and areas with high percentages of underrepresented minorities,” says Bradley.

UB engineers will utilize Ceres’ technology to optimize their current methods for collecting and testing wastewater. The current methods are labor intensive, and the team of researchers need to collect 500 milliliters of wastewater to test samples. Ceres’ new technology allows researchers to collect samples in 15 milliliter tubes, and test 24 samples at once, making the collection, testing and transit processes more efficient.

“Once implemented, the new technology will make the process more convenient and help us expand from Erie County to the rest of the region,” Bradley says.  

The center of excellence distinction provides UB with an opportunity to further develop expertise in this area. According to Ye, the ongoing project has trained five master’s students and six undergraduate students in wastewater processing and virus detection methods.

“Students are learning wastewater-based epidemiology and clinical lab methods associated with polymerase chain reaction [PCR], a ubiquitous tool for amplifying data,” she says.

Close of student's hand placing test tubes in a holder in the lab where wastewater is analyzed for COVID-19.

New partnerships will allow UB engineers to analyze samples from all five Western New York counties. Credit: Douglas Levere

Expanding surveillance in WNY

In Erie County, Bradley and Ye’s efforts recently expanded from tracking the prevalence of the virus to helping determine the dominant variant. The team is collaborating with Jennifer Surtees, PhD, associate professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, who leads UB’s genome sequencing effort to track COVID-19 variants throughout the county. Surtees and her team track the landscape of SARS-CoV-2 variants based on sequencing the viral genome from individual deidentified samples, typically from people who have already started showing symptoms. Sequencing wastewater samples collected by UB engineers could help identify the dominant variant before the public exhibit symptoms.

“We’re providing wastewater samples for Dr. Surtees and her team to sequence,” Bradley says. “With this approach, they could potentially identify variants earlier, instead of waiting for hospitals to report cases. It would also provide a more community-based measure of the pandemic.”

In addition to sleuthing for SARS-CoV-2 off-campus, the researchers previously monitored five on-campus sites. Because of high vaccination rates and relatively low infection rates among the UB community, the team will no longer monitor the on-campus sites; instead it will focus its efforts on surrounding community, where the risk is greater.

Bradley and Ye are also part of the state Department of Health and Syracuse University-led effort to develop a statewide network of wastewater surveillance and testing centers. This plan would see UB expand efforts from Erie County to Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua and Niagara counties.

“The goal of a state network is to monitor and test wastewater for 90% of the population in New York state. Between every county in the state, there are about 200 wastewater treatment plants that cover this portion of the population,” Bradley says. “In Erie County, we are collecting samples from seven plants, and once we expand to the five Western New York counties, we will be analyzing samples from 12 plants, and hope to expand in the future.”

According to Ye, the network could have several advantages beyond the current pandemic.

“Monitoring wastewater can provide an early warning to future pandemics and potential variants of viruses,” Ye says. “We can also use it as a measure to estimate drug abuse such as opioids in a given area, which will generate data for public health officials.”

 “These wastewater results tell officials where drug use at a community level is prevalent without self-reporting and can detect outbreaks before the public exhibits symptoms,” added Bradley. “The statewide network will help New York state figure out which areas need more help.”

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