As professors at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth Campus, Glenn Simmons Jr. and Richard Melvin spend a lot of time working behind the scenes on technical research projects. Their latest endeavor, however, has much more public appeal: a project to test wastewater across Minnesota for signs of the COVID-19 virus.
For the next several months, the two will be studying samples from wastewater plants in several communities outside the Twin Cities region, gathering information about the location of the virus that could add helpful context to what health officials are learning from individual testing.
“There are a few opportunities in a basic science career where people actually are able to see and understand what the goals (of a project) are and see a direct benefit,” Melvin said. While the professors, of course, wish there were no pandemic to worry about, he said, “in this kind of time you figure out what you can do to make things better for people.”
They hope the data they gather about COVID-19 will contribute to the state’s mitigation and treatment efforts. They plan to share their findings with the state Department of Health, scientists studying the virus and policymakers.
Well-positioned for study
Simmons and Melvin, both assistant professors in the medical school’s Department of Biomedical Sciences, found themselves with some time on their hands when their lab was shuttered during Gov. Tim Walz’s state-at-home directive.
Simmons began to think about wastewater testing in the state’s more remote regions while reviewing studies on past coronaviruses – including the strains that caused MERS and SARS – and noticing similarities among those diseases, such as the gastrointestinal distress they can cause. Scientists in Massachusetts and the Netherlands have also recently tested wastewater for signs of COVID-19.
He and Melvin were well-positioned from their perch in northeastern Minnesota to launch such a study, he thought, so he contacted the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, which provides wastewater treatment for Duluth and some surrounding towns. That led to a phone call with the Minnesota Environmental Science and Economic Review Board, a joint powers board that runs 57 wastewater treatment facilities in rural Minnesota. The group agreed to help.
Andy Bradshaw, who runs the wastewater utility in Moorhead and serves as president of MESERB, said the utility operators in his group were excited about getting involved in the project. “Our members were eager to participate in something that could help to turn the corner on this,” he said.
Simmons also said the project addresses some of the health-care disparities that have emerged during the pandemic – including a dearth of testing in rural areas.
“Cities that lie outside the (Twin Cities) metro area don’t have the opportunity to test like the larger populations,” he said, “so this was a way to allow for monitoring in places that have more limited resources.”
While the virus has been found to be more prevalent in densely populated areas, he said, “we suspect that that won’t always be the case. There might be places with a low population that might have the virus but aren’t being tested.”
A ‘humbling’ experience
At the very least, the men hope the testing will provide a broader look at the presence of COVID-19 in Minnesota.
Plant operators will collect untreated wastewater samples in 250-milliliter containers – roughly the size of a can of Coke – and mail them to the researchers in Duluth. The wastewater will be collected across the state – including the Duluth, Rochester, Moorhead and International Falls regions – as well as in communities in the Twin Cities. (Melvin has already gathered some wastewater himself, driving to the Duluth plant to pick up a sample container).
Simmons and Melvin plan to collect samples once a week from the various locations – perhaps 15 samples from each place, in all. While the virus can only survive in wastewater for a few days, the researchers will use what’s called a PCR (polymerase-chain reaction) process to detect the presence of the virus’s genetic material.
“It’s humbling,” Simmons said of the significance of the project. “As bench scientists, we get used to doing things behind closed doors. Nobody knows what we’re doing until we’re ready to talk about it. Now we’re in conversations with community members who will be directly affected by what we determine.”