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'There's a very clear fingerprint': Inside the MU lab looking for omicron variant in wastewater

Posted at 4:18 PM, Dec 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-02 19:15:37-05

COLUMBIA, Mo. — A team of two dozen University of Missouri-Columbia researchers is looking for the first sign of the highly-mutated omicron COVID-19 variant in Missouri's wastewater.

Microbiologist Dr. Marc Johnson told the KSHB 41 I-Team that researchers will recognize omicron when they see it.

"So alpha, the area we sequence, had two changes that we looked for. Delta also had two changes. Omicron will have 12 changes, so there’s a very clear fingerprint," Johnson said.

The Sewershed Surveillance Project takes more than 160 weekly samples from wastewater facilities across the state. About one dozen of those are from the Kansas City metro.

"With our system, we can get an overview of an entire community whether they are tested or not, it doesn’t matter," Johnson explained.

Once the samples are unpacked, they are sterilized and filtered. The sample is mixed with a solution that then causes the virus to stick together.

Filtering process.jpg
MU undergraduate student Braxton Salcedo prepares to filter the wastewater samples.

"So (the virus is) big enough to spin really hard and they'll go to the bottom of the tube," Johnson said.

After a few more steps of the extraction process, there's a single drop of liquid that contains the RNA, Johnson said. That single drop provides the answers researchers can then share with local health departments.

"If there is a significant increase in levels from the week before, we send out a notice to the health departments letting them know there's been an increase in that area," he explained.

The team also updates a statewide map with results from sewersheds.

"I can say if you are in the city, this is probably what you got. This is what's circulating in your community," Johnson said.

Johnson said the project covers about 70% of the state's population. Earlier this week, Johnson told KSHB 41 the project has picked up only delta variant since around June.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes several advantages of sewage surveillance, including:

  • Wastewater can be a leading indicator of changes in COVID-19 burden in a community
  • Nearly 80% of U.S. households are served by municipal sewage collection systems
  • Detection is independent of access to testing