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NIU plans to implement testing wastewater to flush out coronavirus

Barrie Bode, professor and chairman of the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Illinois University, in the cancer research lab Thursday in Montgomery Hall at NIU.
Barrie Bode, professor and chairman of the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Illinois University, in the cancer research lab Thursday in Montgomery Hall at NIU.

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DeKALB – By the start of the spring semester in January, NIU plans on having an early detection system for COVID-19 in place.

By testing sewage runoff from various sites across campus, the school can get an idea of potential outbreak sites before any residents even show any symptoms.

"The premise here is that people infected with the SARS-COVID-2 virus, which is the virus that causes COVID-19, a subset of those people, roughly a third to half, will actually shed the virus in feces," said Barrie Bode, who's spearheading the program for NIU. "It can be detected in wastewater streams, often before people become symptomatic."

It's called wastewater testing. While not accurate to pinpoint a specific case of the virus given the virus only shows up in the stool samples of less than half of carriers, it's an effective surveillance test that can indicate if a building has an occupant with the virus. That can then lead to specific testing.

Bode, a former chairman of biological sciences at the school who has been switched over to direct the COVID-19 facility, said it's a very useful tool in trying to track down a virus that can cause asymptomatic carriers.

"This process is being carried out across the country in several communities by several universities and in some municipalities as well," Bode said. "It's also being deployed across the world. Spain, Italy, Australia, they're all doing wastewater testing for their countries."

Bode said there are three phases in the implementation of the wastewater testing program. The first and current phase is setting up the lab. Phase 2, which he said he expects to start in November, is protocol development. Phase 3 is the beginning of testing.

"The idea is you can test surges or spikes in the concentration of the virus in wastewater streams," Bode said. "Let's say we're testing outside of a residence hall. You can pick up surges in the virus, and then really target your testing efforts toward students that live in that residence hall."

Bode said the exact number of locations the NIU program will monitor is still to be determined. The start will be two access points to start during the development phase. But once Phase 3 begins, it will likely feature more. He estimated five or six sites around campus or in the surrounding neighborhoods.

The school currently is conducting random surveillance testing on about 600 students per week. Positivity rates for those tests have been more than 2.7% just once and have been less than 2% for the past three weeks.

"It's a monitoring system to look for surges of incidences of the virus," Bode said. "Again, the idea being if you are sampling from different access points, which we will be by the way, and you see one of those access points is exhibiting an increase in SARS-COVID-2, you can then focus more testing efforts on the community that access point is measuring from, whether it be a neighborhood, whether it be outside a specific dormitory or residence hall, it gives you a broad picture and gives you a more informed way of knowing when certain people should be tested."

Bode said the method has been around for a while but has seen a resurgence since it can now be applied to COVID-19.

"It's not a new field, it just recently switched over to looking at SARS-COVID-2," Bode said. "It's called wastewater based epidemiology. This has been going on for many, many years. So wastewater testing is not a new thing, it just made it into the public headlines because of the COVID-19 pandemic."

Bode said the Kishwaukee Water Reclamation District originally approached with the idea.

Matt Streb, chief of staff for the university, said the partnership is key along with someone like Bode running the program.

"Having someone like Dr. Bode, with his expertise on campus, is wonderful," Streb said. "His work with the water district has been great. When you're able to have those partnerships with those entities, it helps us and puts us in a better position than we would otherwise be."

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