UC Berkeley launches pop-up lab to test wastewater for COVID-19

UC Berkeley Environmental Health & Safety staff members Tim Pine and Al Sanchez deploy an autosampler at University Village to collect wastewater for analysis.
Kara Manke/Courtesy
Asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people do not usually receive or seek out clinical testing for COVID-19, so wastewater testing can provide a more 'complete picture' of the prevalence of the virus, according to Rose Kantor, a campus postdoctoral researcher working at the pop-up lab.

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At the beginning of this month, a team of scientists at UC Berkeley launched a pop-up lab in Hildebrand Hall to test wastewater for the virus that causes COVID-19.

The lab, launched Oct. 1, works together with public health and wastewater agencies to monitor the virus and analyze COVID-19 trends in the Bay Area through the COVID Wastewater Epidemiology for the Bay Area, or COVID-WEB, project.

“Everything that we are doing is targeted towards public health agencies and giving them additional information that they can use to help control the spread of SARS-CoV-2,” said Rose Kantor, a campus postdoctoral researcher working at the lab. “We are hoping this can be used to fill in the gaps of clinical testing and better target where to send clinical testing.”

Kantor and campus postdoctoral fellow Sasha Harris-Lovett emphasized that wastewater testing is not intended to replace clinical testing. Rather, the two are complementary methods to contain the spread of COVID-19 — wastewater testing is able to provide certain insights clinical testing is unable to obtain.

Asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people do not usually receive or seek out clinical testing, so wastewater testing can provide a more “complete picture” of the prevalence of the virus, according to Kantor.

“Wastewater monitoring is another important tool in our toolbox for managing COVID-19, and I think we need as many tools as we can get,” Harris-Lovett said.

The lab is currently sampling wastewater from Clark Kerr and University Village, said Kara Nelson, professor of civil and environmental engineering, in an email. Although part of a broader trend of colleges engaging in wastewater testing on their campuses, UC Berkeley’s project is unique in that they are also processing wastewater samples from various locations around the Bay Area, added Nelson.

Additionally, the “Sewage, Salt, Silica and SARS-CoV-2” protocol used in the project, which is a quicker, more cost effective and more sensitive method of wastewater testing used nationwide, was first developed at UC Berkeley by Oscar Whitney, according to campus graduate student Alex Crits-Christoph.

UC Berkeley was also at the forefront of performing genome sequencing with wastewater, Crits-Christoph said. Using genome sequencing, the lab discovered strains of the virus not yet found in California but seen elsewhere in the United States.

“This is initial evidence that wastewater can detect particular strains before clinical testing,” Crits-Christoph said.

Nelson explained that this finding implies certain strains of COVID-19 were introduced by people who travelled outside of the Bay Area. It is important to determine whether transmission occurs within a community or from the outside to implement proper reduction techniques, Nelson added.

There is interest in testing more frequently and expanding testing regions because broader testing provides greater opportunity for early warning, Harris-Lovett said.

“Moving forward, we hope the wastewater data will be useful for getting an early warning if infections start to increase again, and for confirming the effectiveness of responses to outbreaks,” Nelson said in an email.

Contact Serene Chang at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @_serenechang .