U of M Research team tests Waste Water for COVID-19

Emily Ness
Updated: May 08, 2020 01:03 PM

There are a number of barriers to testing people for COVID-19, but researchers have round a new way to break through. That breakthrough comes from waste water.


Right here at home, researchers at the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Duluth campus are working to test waste water for COVID-19. This broad form of testing a pool, rather than a person, allows researchers to track patterns of the illness across the state.

"There’s a lot of moving parts in getting testing to reflect accurately what is happening in our population so the approach that we’re taking is eliminating that excessive multiple layers of bias that exist in that whole process and so we want to be able to see what’s happening on a much broader scale and we want to be able to do that in a way where we are answering people’s question: ‘Are we safe yet?’,” Dr. Glenn Simmons Jr., professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Minnesota’s Medical school in Duluth said.

Simmons is one of two researchers working on the project right now. The other is his colleague Dr. Richard Melvin. According to Simons, the project of testing waste water for COVID-19 came about after having conversations with colleagues across the country about COVID-19.

"I’ve never done so much so quickly in terms of reaching out and having so many different organizations reciprocate and say: ‘Yes we want to be involved,’” Simmons said.

To make testing possible, the researchers formed an agreement with the Minnesota Environmental Science and Economic Review Board—an organization that represents more than 50 wastewater treatment facilities across the state. Currently, they are testing at roughly a dozen waste water plants in metro and rural areas across the state, but soon, they hope to get all of the plants on board.

"The approach is really motivated by the fact that we understand testing is limited. Testing requires people to know they want to go get tested. They have to also have the ability to go get tested and the healthcare professionals on the other side of that also have to say: ‘Yes, we have enough tests.’ You are a person who would be good candidate for receiving a test and not another person who may be in more critical situations,” Simmons said.

Waste water is tested using a polymerase-chain-reaction process. This determines whether COVID-19 is present in the population. The goal is to monitor the rise and fall of COVID-19 across the state.

Simmons said the project is being funded by money that has been repurposed from projects that have been cancelled. It is the third University of Minnesota developed strategy to test the spread of COVID-19.

"It’s humbling, it’s overwhelming, but its also very exciting because I think something needs to be done and I am glad that I am in a position to do it,” Simmons said.

Research is anticipated to continue into the fall and findings will be shared with the Minnesota Department of Health and the scientific community worldwide.


Emily Ness

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