Innovative coronavirus wastewater test allows Technion to reopen campus

Testing campus wastewater for COVID-19 allows for the detection of otherwise asymptomatic cases, and can narrow down cases to specific zones.

The researchers and representatives from Kando install the sampling system at Technion. (photo credit: RAMI SHLUSH / TECHNION)
The researchers and representatives from Kando install the sampling system at Technion.
(photo credit: RAMI SHLUSH / TECHNION)
Students and staff at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology will be able to safely return to campus thanks to a new innovative technology that can detect COVID-19 on campus before an outbreak starts.
Developed by Prof. Eran Friedler of the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering's Environmental and Water Engineering Department, alongside researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Health Ministry and the Kando company, this new system works at monitoring campus sewers and waterways for presence of the coronavirus. This serves to project the dispersal of the virus on campus, as well as allowing for action to be taken to stop further spread.
“It is extremely important to bring students, faculty members, and staff back to campus in order to return to a healthy and safe routine of teaching and researching on campus alongside the virus,” Technion president Prof. Uri Sivan said in a statement.
“Until a vaccine or treatment is found, we must break the chain of transmission through early detection of outbreak locations and monitoring the virus in the sewage system will help us in this mission. The Technion campus is one of the first places to implement this innovative technology for constant monitoring of the coronavirus, and we will receive up-to-date information in near-real time regarding coronavirus outbreaks and their locations on campus. As a result, we will be able to deal with them at an early stage and block the spread.”
The project will see wastewater samples from 10 manholes be taken by Kando's smart, automatic sampling system to detect any concentration of COVID-19 RNA. Tests will be carried out at the end of each sampling day at a special laboratory, and the findings of which will be used to evaluate vulnerabilities and determine priorities.
Analyzing wastewater for traces of COVID-19 comes with several advantages, chief among them being the ability to detect cases in otherwise asymptomatic patients. Furthermore, the sewage system itself is structured in a way that enables studies to narrow down zones of possible infections.
 “The sewage system is designed in a hierarchical manner, making it possible to divide each zone into smaller areas,” Friedler explained.
“Consequently, we can monitor the wastewater at specific points and determine the coronavirus concentrations in that area. In this way, we can focus on areas with high infection rates without testing the population itself and without needing to reach many individuals, at least until the location of the outbreak is identified.”
The ability of wastewater samples to catch asymptomatic cases has proven vital before, with a similar system at the University of Arizona in late August having successfully diagnosed two asymptomatic cases on campus, preventing a potentially severe outbreak in the dormitories.
“With this early detection, we jumped on it right away, tested those youngsters, and got them the appropriate isolation where they needed to be,” Richard Carmona, a former US surgeon general who is in charge of the university's reentry task force, said in a press conference at the time, according to The Washington Post.
“Think about if we had missed it – if we had waited until they became symptomatic, and they stayed in that dorm for days, or a week, or the whole incubation period – how many other people would have been infected?”
In fact, this is not the first time Israel has used wastewater sampling to combat pandemics. In 2013, such samples in Israeli cities detected traces of polio, resulting in a vaccine campaign and preventing a major outbreak.
This also isn't the first time Friedler has worked on wastewater sampling. In May, his team, alongside Ben-Gurion University, the Health Ministry and Kando, launched a pilot project in Ashkelon to detect wastewater samples. In this first of its kind study for Israel, Ashkelon's 150,000 residents were divided by neighborhood and their wastewater scanned for virus concentration. The researchers succeeded in detecting COVID-19 RNA, and managed to isolate it to neighborhoods, and essentially detected the second wave before other traditional testing methods did.
“Our experiments show that the system we developed is effective in identifying hotspots of coronavirus outbreaks, and in the future we will also be able to use it for early detection of other diseases,” Friedler explained.
Despite the new testing system on campus, Technion will still have a coronavirus PCR testing site available, carried out in cooperation with the nearby Rambam Health Care Campus.