GVSU researchers work with health departments to test wastewater for COVID-19

Wastewater testing equipment
Cell and molecular biology graduate students help set up ribonucleic acid (RNA) extracts on the Droplet Digital PCR as part of the wastewater testing process.
Image Credit: Kendra Stanley-Mills

The Annis Water Resources Institute and the Cell and Molecular Biology Department will work with area health departments for the next two years to test and detect genetic markers of the COVID-19 virus in wastewater.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services awarded the Kent County Health Department a $3.3 million grant for wastewater testing, and the Ottawa County Department of Public Health a $1.7 million grant for wastewater testing in Ottawa and Muskegon counties.

Pei-Lan Tsou, associate professor of cell and molecular biology, and Sheila Blackman, professor of biology and cell and molecular biology, are the primary investigators for processing results for Kent County.

“This relationship with the Kent County Health Department provides a great opportunity for our students to experience the practical use of the techniques they learn in our program,” said Blackman. “This molecular monitoring of environmental samples, like wastewater, is an increasingly powerful tool for disease surveillance and we, and our students, are excited to be providing this service to the health department.”

A student processes a wastewater sample at the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences.
Elizabeth Francis, a cell and molecular biology major, puts wastewater samples on a digital magnetic stirrer at the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences.
Kendra Stanley-Mills
Two students process wastewater samples at a lab in the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences.
Austin Schian, left, and Jack Ruhala, cell and molecular biology students, set up the ribonucleic acid (RNA) extracts on the Droplet Digital PCR as part of the process of wastewater testing at the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences.
Kendra Stanley-Mills
A graduate student prepares a wastewater sample for processing at the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences.
Laura Shattuck, cell and molecular biology graduate student, prepares wastewater samples for further processing at the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences.
Kendra Stanley-Mills

Andrew Salisbury, supervising sanitarian at KCHD, said this type of testing can provide early-level detections prior to clinical onset of symptoms. “It gives us potentially up to one week prior to a potential outbreak or increase in cases because we can actually see the biomarkers in the wastewater,” Salisbury said.

AWRI is working with the Ottawa County Department of Public Health to test wastewater in Muskegon and Ottawa counties.

Rick Rediske, professor of water resources and principal investigator at AWRI, said samples from wastewater facilities in both counties will be collected and then analyzed at AWRI twice a week. In the fall, he said a series of samples will be taken from Grand Valley’s Allendale Campus and Muskegon Community College.

“We’re going to be testing for the general coronavirus and also for different variants,” said Rediske. “We can broadly screen populations, cities and communities with wastewater much easier and faster than we can set up testing facilities with nasal swabs. It’s a less invasive and rapid test to look at populations to see if there’s a problem.”

The BIO-RAD Automated Droplet Generator, a new piece of research equipment to test wastewater.
The BIO-RAD Automated Droplet Generator at AWRI.
Kendra Stanley-Mills
A research assistant tests wastewater samples at the Annis Water Resources Institute.
Research assistant Molly Lane uses the BIO-RAD Automated Droplet Generator, a new piece of equipment at the Annis Water Resources Institute.
Kendra Stanley-Mills
 BIO-RAD Automated Droplet Generator, a new piece of equipment at the Annis Water Resources Institute.
BIO-RAD Automated Droplet Generator
Kendra Stanley-Mills

Rediske predicts there will be more wastewater surveillance in the future.

“It’s easy to collect the samples. The hard part is the testing methodology for these diseases,” he explained. “Once we have the genetic markers, we don’t have to culture any of these viruses, all we do is look for pieces of RNA or DNA depending on if it’s a bacteria or a virus. If we have those pieces, we can expand a certain surveillance to other types of infections, like a new bird flu. It’s much easier now that we have the technology and we’re familiar with the method.”

Cell and molecular biology faculty members Sheila Blackman and Pei-Lan Tsou.
Sheila Blackman, left, professor of biology and cell and molecular biology, and Pei-Lan Tsou, associate professor of cell and molecular biology, are the primary investigators for processing results for Kent County.
Kendra Stanley-Mills
Rick Rediske, professor of water resources and principal investigator at AWRI.
Rick Rediske, professor of water resources and principal investigator at the Annis Water Resources Institute, will help analyze samples from Ottawa and Muskegon counties.
Kendra Stanley-Mills