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Biobot Analytics to Track COVID-19 in Sewage Pro Bono

Repurposing analytics it used to produce data on the opioid epidemic, Biobot is offering a pro bono water testing program to contribute data to the health community’s growing understanding of the pandemic.

The United States has more confirmed COVID-19 cases than any other nation, and experts predict the numbers will peak in April. The true scope of the pandemic will be difficult to gauge, because testing here remains limited, but experts have been unequivocal that tracking the spread of the virus is crucial for fighting it.

That’s why Biobot Analytics, a startup that launched three years ago out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is repurposing its wastewater testing technology to find coronavirus in sewers — and offering it practically for free to local government.

Citing new studies that show the virus is shed in stool, Biobot started a pro bono program two weeks ago, in collaboration with researchers at MIT and Harvard University. The company’s website says it’s shipping sampling kits and instructions at cost — about $120 — to wastewater treatment facilities that fill out an application, recommending that they take a couple samples a week and mail them back for analysis.

According to Co-Founder and President Newsha Ghaeli, as of last week, Biobot had shipped about 30 kits to wastewater facilities across the country. She said the various predictive models used by experts to estimate the impact of COVID-19 on the health-care system are based on the number of confirmed cases, and she hopes wastewater data can be an additional input to make those models more accurate.

“The reason we’re doing this is, patient testing is very limited. So if only 2,000 [tests] are being administered in the state of New York, and 200,000 people are infected, then we’re only ever going to know that up to 2,000 people have the disease. We think wastewater epidemiology can help capture all the other individuals that aren’t being tested because there’s limited access to tests,” she said. “Furthermore, it’s been shown that some patients are asymptomatic … so our technology can also capture those patients.”

Not unlike the company’s work detecting opioids in wastewater, Ghaeli said she’s hopeful that Biobot’s data will give governments and health officials a better idea of the prevalence of the virus in specific communities — and over time, whether the figure is increasing, decreasing or leveling off.

“There’s a group of folks working on forecasting the impact of this. Where are we going to be in six or 10 weeks?” she said. “We’re hopeful our data … can help them in those predictions. We don’t want to create anything additional, just make those forecasts a little more accurate.”

Biobot’s website says its testing could also help track the effectiveness of interventions and offer early warnings if the virus re-emerges, if it proves to have a seasonal cycle.

Ghaeli was uncertain how long Biobot’s coronavirus testing program will go — the outbreak is still evolving, she said, and the company is trying to be flexible enough to respond to what’s happening. For now, Biobot will continue sampling weekly for the next six to eight weeks, then re-evaluate with participants whether they want to continue.


Water Tech
Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.