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May 1, 2020

SVSU searches for clues to COVID-19's prevalence in region by examining wastewater

Saginaw Valley State University researchers have been at the forefront of protecting public health at local beaches for several years. As the novel coronavirus pandemic creates a new threat to public health, Tami Sivy and her determined students are on the front lines of groundbreaking research to provide early detection. They are dedicated to protecting communities in the Great Lakes Bay Region by implementing innovative, potentially life-saving research methods. 
Sivy, SVSU professor of chemistry, and her research students are driven to serve the community and discover new ways to defend against this deadly virus. They are rapidly adapting their current freshwater contamination testing methods to test for SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater in order to identify virus hot spots before they can be detected by other testing methods. This innovative approach to early detection is critical, as it can detect viral material that came from people with and without symptoms. 
“It’s known that the virus is excreted in human waste, so we are collecting human wastewater samples from various wastewater treatment plants in the Saginaw Bay Watershed,” said Sivy. 
“It’s a great way to test for the spread of the virus. If we can detect it in wastewater — even if there’s not many people testing positive in a region — we can better see what the levels are, and we can potentially detect hot spots and spread before it’s even being detected by symptoms in humans.” 
While the samples SVSU receives should pose no risk, Sivy is taking extra precautions to keep her students and the SVSU community safe. In addition to extensive protective gear, they are also using specialized safety equipment and safeguarded testing processes. 
“We’ll only be working with the wastewater sample in a special biosafety hood,” Sivy said. 
“When we extract the RNA genetic material, there’s no chance of infection because the genomic material can’t affect us in any way. When the virus travels through the digestive tract, it is inactivated, thus this work poses extremely low risk for infection as wastewater does not contain live virus, but still retains viral genetic material.” 
This new method of testing has already proven to be successful in other areas of the country. Researchers in Somerset, Massachusetts were able to use these methods to identify a COVID-19 hot spot in a local metropolitan area much sooner than with traditional testing. This gave them a better picture of how many individuals were infected in the area, which was far greater than the number who had previously reported testing positive. While 400 cases were reported in the region through human testing, wastewater testing determined that several thousand individuals were actually infected. 
Detecting early signs of spread is crucial to containing the virus and reducing the severity of a second wave, especially as cities and communities begin to open up again. This research allows health officials to respond much quicker to better protect public health. 
For the past several years, SVSU’s Saginaw Bay Environmental Science Institute has partnered with Michigan State University, EGLE, and USEPA to conduct microbial testing in order to determine sources of fecal contamination at local beaches. When the SARS-CoV-2 virus began to spread, Sivy and her students were quick to take action and adapt their current research methods to aid in relief efforts and continue serving their community. 
This adaptation has included modifying which genetic markers they are extracting and identifying from their samples. 
“We are using markers that are specific to the coronavirus,” Sivy said. 
“Additionally, because we’re extracting genomic RNA rather than the DNA that we extract from our freshwater samples, we have to add in an additional step called reverse transcription. The RNA is converted to DNA so we can amplify it and quantify it to determine the levels of the viral RNA.” 
In order to do this, Sivy and her students have been utilizing state-of-the-art techniques and technology, including digital drop PCR instruments. 
“Only two of them in the state are being used to do this genetic material detection and quantification. We’re developing some pretty amazing cutting-edge techniques to do that,” Sivy said. “There’s no other university in our region that’s able to do this kind of work and so we’re excited to be a part of it.” 
This is a rare opportunity, as not many universities and organizations are prepared to conduct this type of research. SVSU has remained ahead of the curve with these complex methods and was approached to contribute its expertise to help stop the spread of COVID-19. 
“We were chosen partly because of how far along we were in the understanding and application of the rapid DNA testing and the source tracking methods for public beaches,” Sivy said. “We started them before most other universities and health departments did.” 
This innovative approach to detecting and analyzing the virus has developed new ways to protect our communities, as well as provided a unique opportunity for SVSU’s undergraduate research students to gain vital hands-on experience. 
“Not many undergraduates have the opportunity at universities to work on projects such as these,” Sivy said. “This is really cutting-edge stuff and it’s developing day by day. So I’ve been so excited for them to be able to learn these methods and apply them. I think it’s helped with their development as critical thinkers and has given them practical experience that can be used in other applications also.” 
This constant pursuit of discovery and commitment to adapt is the forward thinking that continues to push SVSU and research methods forward. If a community in the Saginaw Bay Watershed contracts the virus in significant numbers, SVSU’s research may prove to be an early warning system that allows public health departments to respond quickly and save lives. 
“It’s really important for our region. I am very happy to support and lead some of these efforts, as well as have my students involved and go out as ambassadors of SVSU,” Sivy said. “It’s been a lot of work, but we’ve had a lot of help from our partners. We’re really excited to be a part of it.”