UVA uses robots for wastewater testing
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- The University of Virginia is using a team of approximately 20 auto-sampling robots, about the size of a small trashcan, to search the sewers of residence halls on Grounds for the SARS-COV-2 virus, or coronavirus.
These auto-samplers, with names like Anakin, R2-D2, and C-3PO from Star Wars, are programmed to take 30 milliliters of wastewater every 15 minutes.
Robots similar to these are often used to monitor streams for pollutants but are being used by UVA to monitor residence halls for the presence of COVID-19 in wastewater.
"It's important to have a way to sample that water somewhat consistently across a 24-hour period. Just because SARS-COV-2 is in stool but that stool transiently moves through the system, so you kind of have to catch it if you will," said Dr. Amy Mathers, an infectious disease physician and associate director of clinical microbiology for the UVA Health System.
She has previously done work studying antibiotic resistance in wastewater, and amid the COVID-19 pandemic, she and Lisa Colosi-Peterson, an associate professor in the UVA Department of Engineering Systems and Environment, pivoted to focus on wastewater testing on Grounds for coronavirus with the help of a fleet of robots.
"If we were just to go in and grab it at one-time point, we would probably miss everyone who had used the bathroom before and after that," Mathers said.
The robots are in high demand, with very few manufacturers. Researchers at Syracuse University built their own auto-sampler and posted the directions for how to do so.
"The facilities group at University of Virginia has now built several autosamplers," Mathers said.
Utilizing wastewater testing has helped UVA discover cases that may not have otherwise been detected.
"We can see it in the pooled wastewater, trigger that we need to test everyone in the building, find the asymptomatic positives, pull them out and their contacts into quarantine, and hopefully there's not ongoing transmission," Mathers said.
COVID-19 positive individuals begin shedding the virus through stool before they begin showing symptoms, if they do at all. The cost of wastewater testing is, overall, less than testing the entire residence hall-living population using nasal swabs.
"If you compare it to testing every single human in those buildings every day, it's trivial," Mathers said.
This is despite the fact that a large number of people are needed to keep the machines going.
"It's a big operation involving a lot of people now that we've scaled it up," Mathers said.
UVA has also ordered a second ultra-centrifuge, which will allow it to test even more residence halls, possibly allowing it to monitor each residence hall on a daily basis.