Students join chemistry prof in wastewater research

Tami Sivy

SVSU professors and students are working together to see if there are traces of COVID-19 in local wastewater.

Professor of Chemistry Tami Sivy has helped with previous experiments in the region.

“We’ve been using similar testing to determine the levels of fecal contamination at beaches in the Saginaw Bay Watershed for many years,” she said. “Our results are used to decide whether a beach is safe for swimming and other recreational activities.”

Sivy explained that the methods and technology used in previous research could be applied to COVID-19 research.

“Because we have this specialized instrumentation that allows us to detect microbes based on the level of their genetic material,” she said, “it was natural to ex- tend that testing to determining the prevalence of SARS-Cov2p, the virus that causes Covid-19, in wastewater.”

Sivy said that testing wastewater is an effective way to deter- mine to what extent the virus is spreading throughout a community, since the virus is excreted through human waste.

She also said it is perfectly safe for students to test wastewater because the virus is inactivated once it is in the human digestive system, so there is no risk of transmission.

Sivy has been working with seven different wastewater treatment plants in the Great Lakes Bay Region since April and said more plants will be included in future research projects.

“The goal during the initial stages of the project was to validate the methods and prove that they work for detection of SARS- CoV2 RNA in wastewater,” she said. “We’ve been working closely with Joan Rose’s lab at MSU to do this.”

The $10 million project reaches statewide, and around $350,000 has been allocated to the SVSU lab.

“Michigan is the first state to my knowledge doing such widescale wastewater testing, so there will certainly be publications about the setup, process, methods, communication of results, etc., forthcoming,” she said.

Sivy and her fellow professors and students are also receiving help from other institutions.

“MSU has been instrumental in adapting methods and sharing them with us,” she said. “We use their methods and validate their work with samples from our region. We have even participated in a worldwide validation project where we all analyzed samples taken from a singular wastewater treatment plant, which we all tested with our methods.”

Sivy said the success of the experiment would be determined by the extent to which their methods of testing work, and she hoped their research would result in the ability to detect the levels of virus in certain communities and then inform health departments.

The methods Sivy and her team have been using are able to detect genetic material in wastewater.

“We are testing wastewater from Iosco, Arenac, Bay, Saginaw, Tuscola and Huron counties,” Sivy said. “We are testing the sewage lines that come directly from SVSU.”

She said examining SVSU’s water will benefit residents.

“This will allow us to see if there is an increase in the genetic material from the wastewater treatment plants within these counties, or if there is an increase in the virus RNA from SVSU, probably due to residential students,” she said.

The discoveries Sivy and her team have made since the beginning of the project have helped detect COVID-19 levels in communities and help prevent future spread of the virus.

“The cool thing about this method is that it can detect infection up to a week before a person is symptomatic and detects a high rate of asymptomatic people,” she said. “Therefore, it can provide an early and accurate prediction of spread within a community.”

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