On May 13, Heath Edelman (shown in photo), who teaches Water & Environmental Technology at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, arrived to take the first samples for our new experiment in using our wastewater to see whether we have the COVID-19 virus on one of our campuses. The grating that Edelman is standing on covers the inflow to our wastewater system.

The gray canister at right is an autosampling device with a pump and an array of sample bottles. Edelman set up the machine to take a series of samples over a period of time.  Samples will be sent to Massachusetts for analysis by a company called Biobot.   The technology was developed by Harvard, MIT, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

In this initial phase, a sample will be sent to Biobot weekly. Biobot will test the sample and send us a report telling us if there is COVID-19 virus present in the sample; and if so, an estimate of the number of cases we have. The procedure can detect totally asymptomatic cases as well as cases prior to the appearance of symptoms.

Seth Beaver, who is spearheading this project, emphasizes its experimental nature. The objective is to learn whether this approach may be useful. We can then consider refinements of it.

The weekly cycle of testing in this phase means that a new infection might be active for several days before a sample is even collected. Also, Biobot is only able to promise a one-week turnaround time on the tests, which means there could have been a case on campus for almost two weeks before it shows up in a Biobot report. These delays will limit the usefulness of the Biobot reports. But we will be able to learn whether this approach to testing for the virus has potential. If it is promising, we can push for a quicker process, either with Biobot or perhaps with a nearby lab.

In addition to the sampling machine in the photo above, you can see other datalogging  instruments that Edelman brought with him. These can measure factors such as the pH, temperature, solids, and turbidity of the wastewater. We don’t know yet if those measurements will yield useful information. But, as Seth points out, this is an experiment, so we might as well see what else we might be able to learn.

[A shorter version of this story appeared on the Kendal Residents Association website on May 14.]