Dartmouth-Hitchcock research into presence of COVID-19 in wastewater could offer clues about virus clusters

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Co-investigators, Isabella Martin, MD, (left) and Jacqueline Hubbard, PhD, in the laboratory at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, NH. Courtesy Photo

LEBANON, NH – Dartmouth-Hitchcock (D-H) has begun research to detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in municipal wastewater. With about 60 percent of COVID-19 patients shedding the virus in their waste, this research has the potential to serve as a valuable complement to human diagnostics, and an efficient, cost-effective and less invasive “heads up” of a significant spread of the virus, especially in institutional settings.

Co-leading the wastewater surveillance testing project team for D-H are Clinical Chemist Jacqueline Hubbard, PhD, and Medical Microbiologist Isabella Martin, MD, along with Project coordinator Gregory Tsongalis, PhD, vice chair for Research and director of the Laboratory for Clinical Genomics and Advanced Technology in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at D-H.

The project name, RECOVER, stands for REgional COVID-19 Virus Evaluation in Recrement. “The idea of testing wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 bubbled up early on in the pandemic around the globe,” says Martin. “So it seemed like a good way of improving our overall understanding of the pandemic here in our region.”

“Not only can you see a spike of the virus in wastewater up to seven days sooner than you see patients presenting with symptoms, but you can test a large group of people all at once, regardless of symptoms,” said Hubbard. “In facility-specific settings, you can save a lot of resources required to constantly test individuals. Plus, the workers at the municipal wastewater treatment plants have been so enthusiastic about participating, which has been rewarding for us.”

The research comes on the heels of a national push from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is launching the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) to collect data nationwide, better understand the data and determine best practices for testing.

The project will be broken down into three phases:

  • Phase 1: Adapt and compare testing methods currently available, determine testing process steps, and establish relationships with local wastewater treatment facilities and public health experts at the state level.
  • Phase 2: Test wastewater from three different municipalities daily for two weeks to refine testing methods.
  • Phase 3: Begin broader surveillance at more sites across New Hampshire and Vermont, including individual institutions such as nursing homes, prisons and colleges to monitor specific at-risk communities.

“There is definitely national momentum behind this topic,” said Martin. “Here at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, we feel well-positioned to be at the forefront of testing in our region, contribute our data to the national effort and help develop the best methods for testing.”

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