MU researcher 'not surprised' to discover U.K. variant in wastewater

Marc Johnson MU researcher
Posted at 5:10 PM, Feb 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-22 18:26:51-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — While there is currently one confirmed case of the U.K. variant of COVID-19, also known as B.1.1.7, in Missouri, wastewater testing shows it is widespread across the state.

Researchers from the University of Missouri in Columbia discovered the variant in 13 wastewater systems across the state about a week ago.

Marc Johnson, professor of molecular microbiology, is one of the lead researchers on the project called the Coronavirus Sewershed Surveillance Project. Researchers have been partnering with the Department of Health and Senior Services and the Department of Natural Resources to test for coronavirus in wastewater since June.

The project can provide early detection of an upcoming outbreak or emerging variants.

A news release from DHSS said the research shows the U.K. variant is present but not highly prevalent in samples collected throughout the state.

Johnson told 41 Action News researchers started looking for the variant in samples in December, around the time it was making news headlines.

"We started by just giving a quick look at it and there was just nothing obvious that was jumping out," Johnson said. "Then we thought well maybe it's there in really low amounts, so we started doing what we call deep sequencing, which is basically sequencing a million small fragments at the same time."

Johnson said researchers discovered the variant in low levels of samples across the state.

"I've been saying I'm surprised, but when I think about it now I'm realizing I shouldn't be surprised, about 2% of the sequences they're doing in the U.S. now are coming back as being this variant," Johnson said. "It's been found in 44 states, why wouldn't I think it's everywhere?"

The state doesn't detail specifics on location, and Johnson said he's been asked not to speak about certain cities.

"You know there's no real rhyme or reason to the ones that were positive or the ones that were negative. They don't want me to get into naming cities because even the ones that came back negative, it doesn't mean it's not there, it just means we didn't detect it," Johnson said. "The ones that came back positive, you know, nothing is really jumping out to say, 'oh this is something we need to worry about on the health side.'"

Johnson said the testing mainly shows whether or not the virus is present. Someone infected with the virus can shed it into wastewater for weeks after recovering, so wastewater testing can't show whether or not a case is active.

"It could be some guy who passed through and used the local facilities and kept moving. I mean, it's so hard to say what it means," Johnson said.

Testing for viruses in wastewater is becoming increasingly popular around the world.

Dave Alburty, CEO of InnovaPrep, a microbiology tech company based in Drexel, Missouri, said the testing is a way to get a head start on finding what communities the virus is in before an outbreak happens.

"As we get back to work it'll be a low-cost, per-person way to do the monitoring, which I think is super important. Monitoring people individually is one thing but if you can do them all at once like with a sewage sample, that's super cost-effective," Alburty said.

Alburty said the tool can be critical to detect other viruses such as norovirus on cruise ships and polio, which the world is still actively battling.

As Missouri sees a decrease in COVID-19 cases, Johnson and public health leaders are encouraging the public to continue practicing good infection prevention control such as hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing.