Pandemic surveillance…meet poop.

In scientific terms, research is being conducted on campus wastewater to supplement clinical testing for SARS-CoV-2. In simpler terms, let’s find out if the coronavirus is present by checking out the stuff we flush down the toilet.

There is increasing evidence that if the coronavirus is present in asymptomatic people it can be detected in wastewater, usually far earlier than through individual testing, according to Kate Meierdiercks, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of Siena’s department of environmental studies and sciences. She said the University of Arizona credits wastewater surveillance with recently preventing an outbreak on campus, and this platform of data collection is quickly gaining traction in the scientific community.

Meierdiercks and two CURCA summer scholars wanted to test the hypothesis here themselves, so they developed a pilot program funded by the School of Science to assess the science, public health impact, and feasibility of testing Siena's wastewater for the presence of SARS-CoV-2.  

“The really useful part is wastewater surveillance data could be used as an early warning system for colleges that have large populations to monitor,” she said. “If this effort is expanded, information from a regular wastewater surveillance program could help supplement COVID-19 clinical testing.”

Samples are sent to a Syracuse-based lab on a weekly basis and results are then used to help focus future testing (including, potentially, the College's weekly surveillance testing program).   

“SARS-CoV-2 can be detected in wastewater before people start to show symptoms,” said Meierdiercks. “Upticks in the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in a college campus’ wastewater would signal that an increase in human screening – nasal swab tests – is needed.”

Siena President Christopher Gibson ’86 Ph.D. supports the efforts.

“We will continue to fund this outstanding program initiated by Dr. Meierdiercks, Dean Cummings and students in the School of Science, and employ this wastewater testing protocol in conjunction with our other coronavirus testing components and screening protocols, to help keep our community safe in these challenging times.”

Lab results for wastewater testing can generally be turned around in 24 to 48 hours. Samples were taken on campus in cooperation with Adirondack Environmental Services, using a pump that brought wastewater from a manhole into a glass jar. The jar was then shaken and poured into four 250mL sample bottles to be sent for testing.

Anne Larsen ’22 and Cassidy Hammecker ’22 worked with Meierdiercks by researching the science behind wastewater surveillance and developing the logistics of how this type of project could work at Siena and in the broader community.  In addition, Hammecker researched wastewater surveillance as a public health tool to help identify vulnerable populations for targeted public health outreach.

“No amount of appraisal can match the immense feeling of pride and satisfaction that summer research has given me,” said Hammecker. “The knowledge and skill set I have developed are so valuable, and the work we did will make such a difference for our community and the environment! Nothing beats the feeling of all the work coming together and being applied.” 

Larsen added, “Through this project I was able to build strong relationships with my professor and peers while learning about the importance of communication and collaboration. It was extremely rewarding to see the research my peers and I conducted come to fruition, and I am very grateful for this experience.”

Laura Bornt ’21 provided an assist with the collection last week.

“I learned how the pump worked to get the wastewater in a contained jar, and how to safely collect and handle the samples,” she said. “It was a great experience getting to work with a private company such as Adirondack Environmental Service and see real world applications of what I have been learning here at Siena.”