Sewage samples show dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases in Mass. communities

BOSTON — Sewage samples are showing a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases in Boston area communities.

That’s according to Biobot Analytics, which has been tracking the pandemic in communities based on what people flush down the toilet.

Biobot, which is contracted by cities and towns in 42 states, collects samples from sewers in communities sector by sector – providing an average of how many people are infected with the virus.

According to the Cambridge-based company, the latest samples from parts of the Boston area and other areas of the state are showing levels close to what was seen at the height of the pandemic.

“Using this wastewater based epidemiology gives a lot of communities a window into the future of what’s to come,” said Jennings Heussner with Biobot Analytics.

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Biobot’s Jennings Heussner told Boston 25 News that the program often picks up cases of the virus that health officials may not know about yet.

“There are people who will be captured by our wastewater testing who are purely asymptomatic and would have never been tested but yet are still able to transmit the virus in their individual communities,” explained Heussner.

The noticeable increase has also been showing in samples taken three times a week from the Deer Island Treatment Plant.

Wastewater flows in to that location from more than 40 communities around Boston.

Biobot has been contracted to process the samples as part of a pilot study with the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

“Short of giving everyone a nasal swab test on a regular basis, ours is the most complete approach to giving a community a look into what is actually happening with the viral spread,” said Heussner.

Early on in the pandemic, it became clear that COVID-19 makes its way into the digestive system and could be found in human feces.

The coronavirus breaks down fairly quickly once it’s flushed.

Wastewater testing doesn’t recover the whole virus, but instead extracts two specific pieces of viral material called RNA. The more RNA in a sample, the more people are infected.

Biobot’s testing program is collecting samples at 450 locations across the country.

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