Wastewater samples taken by Louisville/Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District. Photo courtesy MSD.
Wastewater samples taken by Louisville/Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District. Photo courtesy MSD.

University of Louisville research that uses wastewater to monitor the rates of COVID-19 infection was first to identify a variant in Louisville, alerting officials ahead of other testing methods and giving them valuable time to work to contain it.

UofL detected the variant, a Brazilian strain known as P.1, early in April in a wastewater sample from western Jefferson County. Once researchers received the results, they alerted the Louisville Metro Department of Health and Wellness as well as the state, which confirmed a positive case in the same zip codes with different testing methods a week later.

“The ability to detect viruses early, such as in this case, gives officials more time to take precautions and contain their spread,” said Aruni Bhatnagar, professor of medicine and director of UofL’s Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute, which leads the wastewater research. “With pandemics, every second counts. In as little as one week, the virus can spread significantly, and then it becomes much harder to contain. This work gives us more time and an opportunity for targeted testing.”

UofL researchers began testing wastewater last year as part of the Co-Immunity Project, a groundbreaking partnership to track COVID-19 in Louisville Metro.

The Louisville/Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer District has sent weekly samples from 12 sites representing multiple neighborhoods and five wastewater treatment facilities that aggregate the entire county.

Those samples are taken to the UofL Center for Predictive Medicine, where pharmacology and toxicology assistant professor Josh Fuqua and his team process the samples and isolate viral RNA, and to the UofL Genomics and Bioinformatics Core facilities, where computer science and engineering professor Eric Rouchka analyzes the virus sequences to detect variants.

UofL recently announced the expansion of this work, backed by an $8.6 million grant. That expansion goes one step further than previous work — from identifying whether disease exists in a neighborhood to estimating how prevalent it is there.

Bhatnagar said understanding that connection could “revolutionize the way we track and contain pandemics, and not just COVID-19.”

Rather than rely solely on direct testing, such as with nasal swabs, wastewater testing can give health departments another tool to gauge the severity of community infection and to identify areas where the infection is prevalent. The tool also is faster, more efficient and less invasive.

“This is cutting-edge work – and the fact that it’s being done right here in Louisville – right here at UofL – places us at the forefront of public health innovation,” said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. “It shows we’re doing the work to keep our city and cities around the world safe.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Co-Immunity Project has conducted ongoing testing and surveys to better understand the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19. In the past year, UofL researchers have tested more than 12,000 people for COVID-19 infection and antibodies, beginning with frontline health care workers. They also have worked to gauge how local citizens feel about COVID-19 vaccines, with 91% of Jefferson County residents in a recent poll saying they would like to be vaccinated.

“This is one more example of how UofL has led the charge in finding new and innovative ways to detect, contain and fight COVID-19,” said Kevin Gardner, UofL’s executive vice president for research and innovation. “Developing these new, more efficient tools for tracking pandemics, such as wastewater monitoring, is a big step in advancing health for our community and beyond.”

The Co-Immunity Project needs 2,000 residents to undergo random testing for COVID-19 infection and antibodies the week of May 17-23 as part of this ongoing research. To learn more, visit the website here, call 833-313-0502 or email covidsupport@louisville.edu.