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Carmel receives results of first sewage water testing for virus that causes COVID-19

Some scientists believe wastewater could be a key data source in detecting the virus.
(Biobot photo)

CARMEL, Ind. (WTHR) -Carmel began testing its wastewater this month as a way to measure the current spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 and to help stay ahead of future outbreaks.

They received the first results of the sewage water testing on Thursday.

"About 1,000 to 1,200 were infected with (the virus that causes) COVID-19," said Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard.

Carmel also processes some of Westfield's wastewater, which was included in this initial result.

"1,200, or slightly under 1%. It's slightly lower than what we thought it might be," said the mayor. "Which is good. We didn't want to see 5 or 6% at one time."

He said if he had seen 5% or 6%, there could have possibly been a need for slowing the re-open for the sake of saving lives, even though everyone is eager to get back to work and their new normal.

The wastewater testing samples were collected on May 7th and sent to a Boston-based company called Biobot.

Carmel was initially told they would have the results from the lab's pro-bono campaign within a few days. The city finally received the results on May 28, exactly three weeks after the samples were taken.

"They had some issues getting the results back to us in a timely manner," said Brainard.

"Biobot has been very upfront, very transparent with us about their issues. They're very optimistic they can improve, but we're continuing to look at other labs that can preform the same service," he added.

Biobot said they launched their pro-bono pandemic-related testing efforts in collaboration with MIT and Harvard.

Their campaign "focused on developing the methods to quantify SARS-CoV-2 in sewage," said Biotbot's co-founder and CEO Mariana Matus, PhD, in a statement emailed to 13News.

Biobot has tested for the virus among "400 wastewater treatment plants" across the country, according to Matus' statement.

In their statement, Biobot said that "as a no-cost research collaboration, we were limited in our ability to deliver results, especially since there were a couple of team members who had to go into self-quarantine. Given the high demand for this testing, we are offering it as a paid service starting June 1 with a guaranteed turnaround of 3 to 7 days to start, while aiming to get it at 3 days."

But if there had been an outbreak in a city that Biobot was testing and it took that city three weeks to receive results, the data would have come at least a week too late.

Sewage water testing can reveal how many individuals have the virus, regardless of whether they are symptomatic or asymptomatic. But with most symptomatic people typically showing signs within 2-14 days, 21 days could be a cause for concern.

But the delay in results from one company hasn't deterred Carmel from pursing wastewater epidemiology as a way of staying ahead of future outbreaks.

It is "a tool, one tool in our tool box that we can use to help slow the spread," Brainard said. "We look forward to doing it on a regular basis going forward. We're also in discussion with Notre Dame who can do similar testing."

Prior to the sewage water testing, the city "didn't know how many people were infected in Carmel," said Brainard.

But "now, we do have a baseline if we switch to another lab to continue this or we continue with Biobot, we have our baseline. And if we get the testing faster and more frequently we'll be able to see any spikes, increases or decreases," said the mayor.

Brainard said having a baseline is critical as the city re-opens.

"We've seen a small spike the last two or three days in patients with COVID (-19) in our local hospitals since we started to re-open. We're going to be monitoring that very carefully (over) the next two weeks," said Brainard.

"It's a very small uptick but the numbers are going up slightly, not down slightly ,as they were ten day ago," he added.

He said knowing that he can test the sewage system in a specific area which would give an indication of potential community spread for a specific building or school leads him to be "optimistic (that) this is one tool that can help us especially as we open schools in the fall."

He said if the city were to notice a spike in the high-school, for example, they could mobilize to test everyone "very quickly."

The same applies for a large company. If there was a spike in a building "than we know we have a cell or cluster in that building" and "it allows us to use our limited tests much more effectively," said Brainard.

Without a cure, treatment or vaccine, all solutions are just one of many tools.

"None of these tools is going to be a panacea. none of them is going to be the total solution," said Mayor Brainard.

But by wearing masks, contact tracing, conducting antibody testing, virus testing and social distancing, "if we do all these things simultaneously, I think we can contain the virus," said Brainard.

Carmel plans to continue to conduct sewage water testing in an effort to stay ahead of any future outbreaks. They say it would be ideal to find a local provider in the state of Indiana as it would shorten the amount of time it takes to receive results.