UNR researchers say wastewater can predict the course of Omicron variant

Published: Jan. 6, 2022 at 5:06 PM PST
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - Don’t mistake this refrigerated unit for anything than what it is. Located on the third floor of UNR’s Engineering Building, the bottles inside contain wastewater from water treatment plants, schools, hotels and neighborhoods. Such samples have been collected since April of 2021.

An analysis of the water can help determine when the virus which causes COVID-19 made its way to Northern Nevada, as well as what variant was present in that virus.

“It gives us a signal an early warning if COVID 19 will be on the increase of decrease the following week,” says Lin Li Ph.D. with UNR School of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Such predictions Dr. Li says are possible because people shed the virus first in wastewater before they show up with symptoms and then get tested.

While such information is important, the work does not end here. The virus contained in the samples are later sequenced to determine what variant they contain.

When samples were taken in 2021 the Delta variant tested as the predominant strain.

Sequencing confirmed the Omicron variant here December 20. Wastewater treatment first detected Omicron December 12. Now samples are proving Omicron is most common.

Some may ask, “what difference does all of this make?”

Scientists say these are significant pieces to a complex puzzle. But the findings do impact local residents in a very real way. “Based on the copies of the virus in the wastewater we can predict, approximately how many people might be positive in the community,” says Subhash Verma Ph.D. with University of Nevada Reno, Center for Molecular Medicine. “It is a direct measure yes,” he adds. Such wastewater and later sequence testing will continue into the foreseeable future.

The information gathered will help determine protection, treatment, and public health recommendations residents will be asked to follow to combat serious illness from the Omicron variant or other variant we will likely see in the months and years to come.

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