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Open Access Publications from the University of California

SARS-CoV-2 raw wastewater surveillance from student residences on an urban university campus


The COVID-19 pandemic brought about an urgent need to monitor the community prevalence of infection and detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2. Testing individual people is the most reliable method to measure the spread of the virus in any given community, but it is also the most expensive and time-consuming. Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) has been used since the 1960s when scientists implemented monitoring to measure the effectiveness of the Polio vaccine. Since then, WBE has been used to monitor populations for various pathogens, drugs, and pollutants. In August 2020, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville implemented a SARS-CoV-2 surveillance program that began with raw wastewater surveillance of the student residence buildings on campus, the results of which were shared with another lab group on campus that oversaw the pooled saliva testing of students. Sample collection began at 8 am, and the final RT-qPCR results were obtained by midnight. The previous day's results were presented to the campus administrators and the Student Health Center at 8 am the following morning. The buildings surveyed included all campus dormitories, fraternities, and sororities, 46 buildings in all representing an on-campus community of over 8,000 students. The WBE surveillance relied upon early morning "grab" samples and 24-h composite sampling. Because we only had three Hach AS950 Portable Peristaltic Sampler units, we reserved 24-h composite sampling for the dormitories with the highest population of students. Samples were pasteurized, and heavy sediment was centrifuged and filtered out, followed by a virus concentration step before RNA extraction. Each sample was tested by RT-qPCR for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, using the CDC primers for N Capsid targets N1 and N3. The subsequent pooled saliva tests from sections of each building allowed lower costs and minimized the total number of individual verification tests that needed to be analyzed by the Student Health Center. Our WBE results matched the trend of the on-campus cases reported by the student health center. The highest concentration of genomic copies detected in one sample was 5.06 × 107 copies/L. Raw wastewater-based epidemiology is an efficient, economical, fast, and non-invasive method to monitor a large community for a single pathogen or multiple pathogen targets.

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