Researching Wastewater as Part of Ohio’s COVID-19 Response

Since March, COVID-19 has become a widespread topic of conversation. Finding ways to explain what this virus is, how one can treat it and how to slow the spread of the virus are just a few commonly asked questions with few clear answers. However, one Kent State University professor is helping to identify areas where spikes in infection rates may occur. 

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Xiaozhen Mou, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences, and her research team recently received funding for their hard work as part of Ohio’s statewide collective effort to discover traces of COVID-19 virus particles in wastewater. This work is led by the Ohio Water Research center housed at Ohio State University. As lead funding recipient, it partnered with Kent State University, Akron University, The University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University to assess wastewater with the goal of providing warnings of the risks of infection in each region.

In past years, wastewater has been used to monitor incidence and spread of many different contagious diseases. 

Through collecting wastewater, researchers like Mou can quantify how many virus-like particles are in the water. A second team examines that data to try and predict the threat of the disease in the area. With this information, along with a statewide news release from the governor, researchers are able to provide hospitals and public health workers with up to two to three days of warning of a potential increase in numbers prior to the visible spike in hospital visits. 

Research related to this is very costly; however, due to the importance of identifying possible areas of increasing COVID spread the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) funded this work as part of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) funding.

Funding was only one challenge. 

“My lab is not a virus lab,” Mou said. “Typically, the work that is done here is on environmental bacteria. We study how bacteria transform different substrates, including some important organic pollutants in the natural environment. Even so, when I heard there was a need for additional researchers to perform COVID-19 testing, I thought that it would be great to assist with this important work.”

Mou’s team tested water samples from five wastewater plants in northeast Ohio, including three in Cleveland, one in Canton and one in Ashtabula, twice a week. Once these samples are taken back to the lab, genomic RNA of COVID-19 viruses were immediately extracted. Then  Reverse Transcription Quantitative Polymerase Chain Reactions (RT-qPCR) were performed to quantify the number of COVID-19 viruses in the wastewater.

“A lot of universities in other states are doing the same monitoring work as us,” Mou said. “When there is a pandemic going on, wastewater monitoring has been proved as a good tool to help predict the risks and help in mediating the pandemic effect.”

Through CARES funding, Kent State is also expecting to start dorm wastewater testing soon to help mitigate risk prediction on campus in the future.

“The ability to provide a 2-3 day warning about areas likely to experience a spike in cases is critical to providing adequate health care and other mitigation means to beating this virus.” Mou said. 

Learn more about Kent State's Department of Biological Sciences 

POSTED: Sunday, November 22, 2020 - 9:21am
UPDATED: Tuesday, November 24, 2020 - 8:04am
WRITTEN BY:
Lauryn Oglesby