Robots will detect COVID-19 infection under manholes

SOMERVILLE, Mass. — What’s flushed down the toilet could help paint a clearer picture of COVID-19 infection in specific communities.

Somerville-based Biobot Analytics is currently quantifying how much of the novel coronavirus is spreading by testing wastewater from 150 wastewater treatment plants in 30 different states.

The CEO and co-founder of the MIT startup said the data they’ve collected thus far represents information from about 10 percent of the population.

“The virus is shed in stool and therefore finds its way into the wastewater infrastructure where we can analyze it,” said Mariana Matus, CEO and co-founder of Biobot Analytics. “We’re seeing a higher level of infection than what the clinical numbers estimate.”

Mariana Matus told Boston 25 News Reporter Drew Karedes that a grant from the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness is allowing the data science company to ramp up their research in the coming weeks.

“Our plan is to continue scaling to be close to testing about 50 percent of the US population on a weekly basis through the end of the year,” explained Matus.

Biobot Analytics will soon be installing robots underneath manhole covers to detect concentrations of the virus in targeted areas.

“It stays there for about 24 hours collecting an average sample of the wastewater,” she said. “It has an inlet hose that sits in the wastewater. Our device will pump the water, which we can analyze in the lab.”

The company used these same robots to collect data related to the opioid epidemic in seven municipalities, including communities in Massachusetts and North Carolina.

“With the power of technology, we make mass testing possible,” added Matus. “Our objective is to make this data available to all of our leaders, our decision-makers.. so they have the best data available to open cities in a smart way.”

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