LEWISTON, Idaho – Lewis-Clark State College has received a grant for $137,700 to study area wastewater treatment plants to measure for levels of SARS-CoV-2, which could help predict outbreaks of COVID-19 in advance to aid local healthcare professionals.
The grant is from the state of Idaho through the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Wastewater testing can be a leading preliminary indicator of changes in COVID-19 in a community, which would allow local healthcare professionals and hospitals to prepare for a spike in COVID cases as much as two weeks ahead of time. Wastewater and sewage RNA testing has been successfully used as a method for early detection of other diseases, such as polio and hepatitis A.
LC State biology professors Leigh Latta and Jacob Hornby applied for the grant and, with the help of students, will conduct the testing in a safe and sanitized environment.
“This project allows us to be proactive instead of reactive and to better prepare for a rush on a hospital,” Latta said. “The other thing is that this is completely anonymous. There is no way to identify an individual and it’s non-invasive. The whole testing doesn’t invade on personal freedoms and liberties and provides better health care information.”
About $90,000 of the grant is being used to purchase two robotic instruments, which will isolate inactive viral particles in the water sample and quantify how many viral particles are present. The samples containing inactivated virus particles will be transported to the LC State campus and placed in a freezer at minus-80 degrees, which will freeze the sample and make it completely stable so the RNA can be extracted and studied by the students under faculty supervision.
Latta said all four of the four-year state public institutions are taking part in the grant, along with the Idaho Bureau of Laboratories. Latta said the five will serve as regional testing facilities and will use the same equipment at each facility. Boise State and Idaho have had their research areas established, so they are helping the others get up and running while avoiding some of the pitfalls they ran into. Latta said there is a group that meets online every two weeks to discuss the project.
Latta said LC State is currently having the equipment installed and he and Hornby are going through training on how to use it. He said the hope is to have the LC State lab fully running in January. Once running, Latta said contact will be made with area Idaho wastewater treatment plants to see if they would like to take part. Fresh samples will be collected and processed on a weekly basis and data will be uploaded to a national centralized database that can be accessed and used by members of the scientific and healthcare communities.
Latta said the robots are useful for both safety reasons and also for research by eliminating the potential for human error.
“We will run the samples through the robots and upload the data,” he said. “We will then have access to write research or other papers.”
Latta said there are 4-5 students who will start out on the project, including one student who plans to pursue a career in epidemiology, which is the study and analysis of the distribution, patterns and determinants of health and disease conditions in a defined population. He said that more students will likely become involved and that he is applying for other grants to help the students earn pay, along with college credits, for their work.
The grant runs through the summer of 2023.
For more information on the grant or the project, contact either Latta at 208-792-2892 or [email protected], or Hornby at 208-792-2441 or [email protected]. More information on the LC State Physical, Life, Movement & Sport Sciences Division can be found on its webpage.