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New Hampshire City Explores Testing Sewage Amid Crisis

Portsmouth, N.H., is interested in learning more about a Massachusetts-based COVID-19 sewage testing program, which could alert to the scope of an outbreak and enable officials to better anticipate impacts.

(TNS) — Portsmouth, N.H., is interested in learning more about a Massachusetts-based COVID-19 sewage testing program, which could alert to the scope of an outbreak and enable officials to better anticipate impacts on infrastructure, like hospital capacity.

Biobot Analytics, born out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a startup measuring sewage to map population health in communities. In collaboration with researchers at MIT, Harvard University and Brigham and Women's Hospital, Biobot recently launched a pro bono program to trace COVID-19 across the U.S. through sewage testing.

The pro bono program has since reached capacity, Biobot told Portsmouth's City Engineer Terry Desmarais in an email this week, but in June, it will begin taking orders from communities with adjusted pricing.

"New studies show that SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, is shed in stool, meaning it's collecting in our city sewers," Biobot's website says. "We are establishing protocols to test sewage for SARS-CoV-2. If successful, this data will give communities a dynamic map of the virus as it spreads to new places."

Per its website, Biobot says data from sewage can enable communities to measure the scope of an outbreak independent from patient testing or hospital reporting; provide decision support for officials determining the timing and severity of public health interventions to mitigate the overall spread of the disease; better anticipate likely impact on hospital capacity in order to inform readiness; track the effectiveness of interventions and measure the wind-down period of the outbreak; and provide an early warning for reemergence of the coronavirus.

Prior to Biobot's work tracing the novel coronavirus, it primarily partnered with local governments to track opioids in wastewater.

"The question is, is what we can do with the data beneficial enough to deal with the costs associated with it?" Desmarais said Wednesday, noting city officials will evaluate benefits of participation once they have more information from the company.

Biobot ships participating communities and facilities a sampling kit and sample collection protocols. After collection, the samples are shipped back to Biobot's laboratories for processing. Results are then communicated back to communities.

Biobot says it recommends a testing frequency of once a week.

Desmarais brought up Portsmouth's interest in the effort during Monday night's City Council meeting, when Councilor Deaglan McEachern asked if any thought had been given to wastewater testing at the municipal level.

In an interview, Desmarais said Biobot claims it can "predict resurgence about a week before it's starting to be seen at the health care level in the community."

Desmarais said he is "very interested" to learn what some of the other participating cities are doing with the data collection – whether they're using it to notify local hospitals, coordinate with health officials, supplement available local and state data, or all of the above.

Researchers have said they can get a potential case count based on the amount of genetic material detected, the number of customers per system and the volume of wastewater. In areas where wastewater testing has been done successfully, researchers have been able to detect COVID-19 hot spots days before the cases appear in hospital admission and clinical testing data. That being said, methods are constantly being refined as more information is learned about the virus.

The city would likely test at its Peirce Island wastewater treatment plant, Desmarais said, which captures "primarily residential" – the entire city of Portsmouth with the exception of Pease International Tradeport..

Desmarais noted there are a lot of specificities not accounted for in sewage testing results, such as whether individuals who make up the testing sample are symptomatic or asymptomatic, for example. He called it "broad-based testing."

©2020 Portsmouth Herald, N.H. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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