Boston-area sewage samples being analyzed for Omicron variant

BOSTON — The Boston-area wastewater tracker is showing the highest viral concentration of COVID-19 we’ve seen this year.

The upward spike in wastewater levels from Boston and 42 other Massachusetts communities is similar to data from last year during the first week of December – when no one was vaccinated.

Data from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority study typically predicts COVID-19 trends in the community a couple of weeks in advance.

Experts are wondering if any of these cases will go undiagnosed because of the high vaccination rate in Massachusetts.

Biobot Analytics, which has a contract to process the samples, is also looking into whether some of the spread that’s happening could be undetected cases of the Omicron variant.

“The increase in the concentration in the wastewater is strongly suggestive of Omicron spread,” said Mariana Matus, co-founder& CEO of Biobot Analytics.

Matus said Biobot is now sequencing the viral genetic information to determine the percentage of variants that are spreading.

“The assay we have, in theory, can capture all of the variants,” explained Matus. “It’s just a matter of a couple of weeks for the data to come back and be analyzed.”

The state’s first confirmed case of Omicron was detected over the weekend.

Infectious disease experts are pointing to the new variant and the current COVID wastewater levels as a warning sign to remain vigilant.

“The wastewater viral loads we’re seeing in Boston does suggest we have considerable transmission occurring in the Boston area,” said Dr. Michael Mina, Chief Science Officer for eMed. “We’re actually seeing values that are exceeding what we have seen in the past year at any time in this pandemic.”

Mina said the current disparity between wastewater viral loads and the number of cases in Massachusetts suggests undiagnosed transmission.

“It could imply that because we have so much vaccination, we’re just not getting a lot of people feeling like they need to get tested or go to the hospital,” said Mina.

However, Mina believes the current data is also concerning in that it shows the virus continues to spread in a highly vaccinated community.

He recommends that those attending holiday parties try to take a rapid test within a few hours before the gathering.

He said that step will reduce the chances of spreading the virus to people in higher-risk categories.

Comments on this article