Mizzou researchers testing wastewater for COVID, preparing for spread of omicron variant


COLUMBIA, Mo. – So far, one Missouri resident has tested positive for the omicron variant of COVID-19, but researchers at the University of Missouri are testing wastewater, prepared for outbreaks in communities across the state.

For months, scientists at Mizzou have been finding the delta variant in nearly every single sample of wastewater in all parts of the state. With the rising number of omicron cases in the U.S., the lead researcher said there’s a chance this new variant could sweep across the state.

It’s a dirty but important job. Marc Johnson, a Mizzou professor who is leading the study in one of the only labs in the state testing wastewater for COVID.

“We don’t really know how contagious it [omicron] is, but all indications are it is going to be as contagious as delta,” Johnson said. “Sometimes people will shed into the wastewater a few days before they even have symptoms.”

The Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) announced Friday, a St. Louis City resident who had been traveling in the U.S. was the first Missouri resident to test positive for omicron. While it hasn’t shown up in the wastewater yet, Johnson said he knows it’s coming.

“We shouldn’t be surprised if there was already a patient in St. Louis,” Johnson said. “They presumably used the bathroom so, there is a good chance we will pick it up this week.”

On DHSS’s Sewershed Surveillance Project website, red triangles, meaning there’s been a 40% increase of COVID found in the wastewater in the past week, are located throughout the map. Johnson said for the past three months, the percentages across the entire state were going down, with a spike here or there. Three weeks ago, is when the upwards trend of positive samples started.

“Before omicron, I said, probably like last year, just not as steep, which is what we are seeing so far,” Johnson said. “We’re seeing increases, but not as steep as we were seeing at this time last year.”

Johnson said his lab was the first to warn the state about a large uptick in delta variant cases across Missouri.

“With delta, we saw repeatedly that it would arrive in a sewer shed and then within a week or two the patient levels would take off,” Johnson said. “We’re anxious to know when it arrives and whether it does the same little trick that delta did of sweeping the state in a matter of days.”

Besides wastewater treatment plants in Missouri, Johnson’s lab also tests samples from Idaho.

“When delta arrived, if it weren’t for the fact that we were sampling lots of places, I wouldn’t have realized that the wave was starting here,” Johnson said.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources provides the wastewater treatment facilities with the kits, boxes, bags, and tubes in order for the lab to test the samples. Johnson said once they receive the data; within a matter of hours, they upload the information to DHSS who then passes it along to local health departments.

“It’s kind of numbing at this point,” Johnson said. “This might be the final push that actually might encourage people to get vaccinated that haven’t been.”

Johnson said it can take up to ten days to get the results back from a sample.

DHSS said as of Monday, 99% of samples sent to the state lab test positive for delta and so far, there are no new cases of omicron in Missouri.

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