Grand Valley partnership, testing to provide public health experts with data about potential COVID-19 hotspots
Grand Valley State University's Annis Water Resources Institute (AWRI) and Cell and Molecular Biology (CMB) Department are partnering on a pilot study for the State of Michigan to implement testing methods to monitor and detect genetic markers of the COVID-19 virus in wastewater.
The GVSU study is one of only 17 in Michigan being funded by the state's Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to use "digital droplet Polymerase Chain Reaction" or ddPCR methodology to measure COVID-19 in wastewater. GVSU’s grant award is $318,000 to conduct the pilot study plus an award of $200,000 for equipment.
The testing is important because finding virus "markers" or remnants in wastewater can help track the progress of the pandemic in populations and identify potential outbreaks. According to Rick Rediske, professor of water resources and principal investigator at AWRI, this is because many people with COVID begin "shedding" virus markers in their waste up to a week before they show or experience symptoms.
"This testing allows us to develop a baseline and provide data to health departments around the state," Rediske said. "We will be testing wastewater samples from Muskegon and Ottawa counties, including locations that service on- and off-campus housing in Allendale. It could help us tell if an outbreak is coming before cases are reported."
Rediske said the grant from EGLE, part of a $10 million budget for the project, is allowing researchers to use new ddPCR testing to find virus markers in each droplet of a tiny sample. This, Rediske said, allows scientists to dilute out interference and get results very quickly and accurately.
Rediske's lab has been using traditional quantitative PCR testing to monitor Lake Michigan beach water quality for several years, putting AWRI on the state's radar for a project of this nature.
The new ddPCR method of testing is "state of the art" next-generation technology, Rediske said. The new instrument, called a BIO-RAD Automated Droplet Generator ddPCR, can take a concentrated wastewater sample of less than a milliliter and break it into 15,000 droplets and then sort and measure virus markers in each drop.
Testing will begin next week, pending the arrival of a centrifuge, which is necessary for extracting samples from raw wastewater. Faculty members and students from the CMB program will use a lab in the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences in Grand Rapids to process samples gathered by professionals from on- and off-campus locations. AWRI faculty and students will be processing and testing the samples with the ddPCR instrument at the university's Annis Water Resources Institute on Muskegon Lake in Muskegon. AWRI has also partnered with the Muskegon Wastewater Management System for sample collection.
"What experts have seen so far is an uptick in virus markers in wastewater before reported outbreaks," Rediske said. "This serves as an early warning system. We can target sensitive areas, like GVSU housing units that have higher population densities than other areas of Ottawa County."
The combined effort will also test samples from underserved communities in Muskegon County that may not have access to timely health care and screening.
"We are working to identify pockets to help protect people against this deadly disease," Rediske said. “This is an important project because we need resources to address the pandemic, and universities have technical capabilities that aren’t necessarily available in commercial laboratories.
"It's a kind of scientific national guard; we are equipped to respond to a pandemic by sharing our study and expertise. It does reflect the fact that we have the technology and experience with PCR monitoring and the expertise of our faculty. It’s a good leveraging of university talent and experience.”
All faculty, staff and students who work with the samples and testing will be using dedicated tools and resources provided by grant funds, as typical classroom laboratory materials can not be used, and no one will be exposed to live virus. A robust and approved safety plan is in place.
The data will not only be provided to local and state authorities, but will also be shared with the Centers for Disease Control for analysis by CDC epidemiologists.
"Our students are getting real-world experience on cutting-edge technology and public health issues because of this grant," Rediske said. "We are proud to offer our expertise and the abilities of our faculty, staff and students to try to enhance public health in the face of COVID-19."
Grand Valley has a wide range of faculty and students working on this project, including:
Richard Rediske, principal investigator
Charlyn Partridge, co-principal investigator
Kevin Strychar, co-principal investigator
Molly Lane, research assistant
Brian Scull, lab manager
Maggie Petersen, Biology Master's student
Alexis Porter, Master's of Public Health
- Cell and Molecular Biology (CMB)
Shelia Blackman, co-principal investigator
Pei-Lan Tsou, co-principal investigator
Alisha Babu, M.S. CMB student
Niranjan Pokhrel, M.S. CMB student
Sarah Rahman, M.S. CMB student
Farrukh Siddiqui, M.S. CMB student
Thomas Goralski, M.S. CMB student
Austin Schian, M.S. CMB student