Wastewater samples show spread of COVID-19 variants, rapid progression

Published: Jun. 22, 2021 at 10:20 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - As health leaders across Southwest Missouri continue to stress the significance of increased cases of the COVID-19 Delta variant, researchers say they have been able to track the rapid progression of variants through wastewater.

While wastewater analysis of COVID-19 is nothing new, checking it for mutations has become a big focus lately.

“We’ve been looking at trends of COVID-19 since May of 2020,” said Jeff Wenzel with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. “We’ve been doing some new testing looking at mutations and variants in February 2021.”

Variations, like the Delta variant, have started becoming more and more dominant.

”We are seeing it in more locations where we are testing,” Wenzel said. “These last results from the week of June 7 we saw it in 27 of the 30 locations we tested.”

Researchers at the University of Missouri have keenly analyzed samples across the state in collaboration with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. Researchers said sewage samples can help provide a much larger sense of recent trends.

”It sort of gives us an unbiased read-out,” University of Missouri Professor Marc Johnson said. “I like to say it’s a reality check. You only know what you know. So you only know the results of people who got tested, you don’t know how many people didn’t get tested for whatever reason.”

Sewage samples can help fill those gaps, Johnson said. Researchers say people can shed the virus before even showing symptoms for it.

“Although we mostly think about the infections of the lungs, the virus can actually also infect the inner lining of the GI tract,” he said. “Our lower gut, and particularly when there is an infection down there, there’s a lot of virus that is shed in the feces.”

Samples have helped track location of recent spikes, Johnson said. Many of those increases have been in Springfield and other parts of Southwest Missouri. Local health leaders say that is likely tied to a rise in the Delta Variant.

Wastewater samples show just how quickly mutations have progressed in the state.

”We saw [variants] for the first time in February,” Johnson said. “I’m going to fast forward to the end of April. By the end of April there was not a single site in the state that did not have variants. Isn’t that amazing? In six weeks it reached every nook and cranny. It’s crazy.”

By late May, Johnson said signs of the delta variant began to appear in area wastewater. After that cases took a large turn for the worst and began to rise drastically again.

Health leaders across Southwest Missouri say the Delta variant is becoming the most common.

In Webster County, officials said the variant consisted of 96% of the area’s sewer shed samples.

By continuing to test wastewater, experts say they can continue to predict outbreaks.

”If we see a significant increase in viral loads, four to six days later, 70% of the time we see an increase in human cases as well,”Wenzel said.

Those researchers say they detect cases, but the wastewater itself cannot cause infection. Local health leaders and wastewater researchers say the vaccine is still the best way to protect yourself from virus mutations.

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