Published March 4, 2021
This week, UB researchers will begin testing wastewater from a small portion of on-campus housing for SARS-CoV-2, a pilot program designed to help mitigate the spread of the virus and protect the campus community.
The program, which will complement — not replace — the weekly surveillance testing of all members of the UB community who are on campus regularly, will provide a greater understanding of COVID-19’s presence among students living on campus.
It also could help spot emerging outbreaks and improve the university’s response to such occurrences.
“This is an extra level of surveillance testing the university is implementing this semester. It has tremendous potential to help us better monitor the prevalence of the virus, and ensure the health and safety of the campus community,” says Christina Hernandez, interim vice president for student life.
At UB, the pilot program will run for about seven weeks. It calls for collecting wastewater samples every Tuesday from sewer lines that serve parts of Greiner Hall and South Lake Village apartments on the North Campus. Additional samples will be gathered from a sewer line that serves Goodyear Hall on the South Campus, where quarantined students are temporarily housed.
Key to the program’s success is the participation of roughly 175 students in Greiner and South Lake, all of whom received an email informing them to complete their mandatory weekly surveillance test on Tuesdays moving forward.
Completing the test every Tuesday will enable UB researchers who are collecting and analyzing the wastewater to sync their data with weekly surveillance testing data. This will help ensure the accuracy of the wastewater data, as well as provide a more thorough picture of the presence of the virus on campus.
“Student participation is critical for our ability to understand the relationship between wastewater monitoring and weekly saliva testing for COVID-19,” says Ian Bradley, assistant professor of environmental engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, whose research lab will lead the collection and testing of wastewater samples.
Bradley, who is also a faculty member in UB’s RENEW Institute, is part of a leadership committee overseeing the pilot program.
The committee anticipates being able to collect and analyze wastewater samples within the same day. Because people often shed traces of the virus before they’re symptomatic, it’s possible these results could help identify a potential outbreak days before it occurs, thus giving the university crucial time to prevent further spread.
Similar wastewater testing programs have been implemented by universities and municipalities across the country.
UB’s program has the potential to advance these efforts because the wastewater testing will be coordinated with pooled saliva testing, and after the pilot concludes, the committee aims to develop actionable thresholds based upon this data. For example, an increase in the prevalence of the virus in wastewater could prompt additional or more targeted testing in the future.
The determination of these quantitative thresholds, plus the potential to expand testing to a larger population (thousands of students living in other residence halls and on-campus apartments) makes UB’s pilot program unique. Additionally, the committee will investigate implementing wastewater testing as a means to monitor the long-term prevalence of the virus — and potentially its variants — among the campus community.
In addition to Bradley, other committee members are: