Oregon State University has received a $1.2 million grant from the Oregon Health Authority to expand its Coronavirus Sewer Surveillance project throughout Oregon to comb community wastewater systems for genetic evidence of the virus that causes COVID-19.
The research team led by Tyler Radniecki and Christine Kelly of the OSU College of Engineering will sample and analyze sewage weekly from 43 treatment plants around Oregon for the next 30 months – every plant outside of the Portland metro area that serves at least 6,000 people.
The project expansion builds on surveillance work the scientists have already done in Oregon cities including Bend, Newport, Hermiston and Boardman as part of OSU’s TRACE-COVID-19 study.
Radniecki and Kelly’s team has also tested wastewater in Corvallis and Washington County, where the work began with the collaboration of OSU professor emeritus Ken Williamson, research and innovation director for Clean Water Services, a regional agency that serves communities including Hillsboro, Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood.
Sewer surveillance researchers took multiple samples in Bend, home of OSU-Cascades, over a two-week period in late May and early June and found them to be largely free of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material. When testing in Bend resumed July 23, “we started to see positive signals of the virus,” Radniecki said.
“The signals were moderate, but definitely present and higher than what we had seen in early June.”
Bend, he noted, is one of the cities funded by the OHA for weekly testing over the next two and a half years. In Newport, home of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center and the community that saw a June outbreak at a fish processing plant, researchers have been taking sewage samples three times a week for the past two and a half months. Viral signals peaked on June 19.
“But the good news is they have been trending downward ever since June 19, and I’d say now they are at a moderate level,” Radniecki said. “There was a spike on July 30 but they have since dropped back down. They’re going in the right direction, and that’s good to see.”
In early July, also in response to a regional outbreak, the sewer surveillance team studied wastewater samples in Hermiston in Umatilla County and Boardman in Morrow County.
“Both had extremely high viral counts in their wastewater,” Radniecki said. “We did each city twice, with a two-week gap, and the signal remained high and did not decrease significantly over that time, indicating strong prevalence of COVID-19 in the communities. Additionally, in Hermiston and Boardman we detected strong viral signals throughout the communities, whereas in Newport it was more pockets of strong viral signal.”
Hermiston is one of six northeastern Oregon cities that will receive weekly monitoring under the OHA grant; the others are Pendleton, Umatilla, Baker, La Grande and Ontario.
The Coronavirus Sewer Surveillance work in Washington County will continue under a separate grant from the National Science Foundation, Radniecki said.