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SVSU helping lead the State in studying wastewater for COVID-19

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SVSU helping lead the State in studying wastewater for COVID-19. (Photo Courtesy - Saginaw Valley State University)

When it comes to detecting the coronavirus, we know about the traditional nasal or throat swab test and contact tracing, but there is another way to track the virus.

It's by testing wastewater, and researchers say it can detect the virus quicker than other methods.

A team of researchers at Saginaw Valley State University, is helping lead the state in the study.

"The cool thing about it is because the viral DNA is excreted in waste, it actually starts being excreted by people who are infected up to a week before they show any symptoms," said Tami Sivy,

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Sivy, a professor of chemistry at SVSU, is leading the project.

She says the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy reached out to her around the end of March.

For the last 10-years, Sivy and students have helped to test fresh water samples from local beaches looking for things like E. Coli.

It's through that network and the instrumentation SVSU has that EGLE reached out for help with COVID testing.

So since April, she and her team began testing wastewater from across the region.

"The other cool thing is that it’s been shown to measure genetic material excreted by a pretty high percentage of asymptomatic people and those are the people that aren’t going to go and get tested because they don’t feel sick, but yet they could be spreading it," Sivy said.

Wastewater samples are collected multiple times a week from locations all over the region: Aus Gres, Bad Axe, Bay City, Beaverton, Billings Township, Frankenmuth, Gladwin, Kochville Township, Midland, Saginaw Township, Standish, Sugar Springs, Tawas, Saganing Eagles Landing Casino and the Saginaw Correctional Facility in Freeland.

The team is also testing wastewater around the SVSU campus tracking residential students.

"Nobody really knows what’s going on so we are kind of like the forerunners in how everything goes down and I think it is really cool to be a part of that," said Caleb Whittaker, a junior taking part in the research.

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The team starts with about 100-milliliters of wastewater, which is roughly one-third of a can of soda. Then, through a multiple step process that 100-milliliters is condensed to 40-microliters of RNA that potentially contains coronavirus.

Once the RNA is extracted from the samples, the team turns to their state of the art equipment.

"In short it's going from extracted RNA to DNA, to how much DNA, which allows you to determine how many people may have been infected in that given sample," said Marc Dean, a junior taking part in the research.

Currently the team gets results within 24-hours, but they hope to be able to streamline the process to start getting same day results.

SVSU and Michigan State University are the only two institutions in the state currently able to do this type of research due to the equipment they have, but this research has gotten the attention of the state.

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Last month EGLE and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced they will be allocating $10-million of CARES Act funding to expand research to universities across the state.

"It's really neat to be a a part of a big project. It's a nationwide and worldwide project," said Kyle Cissell, an associate professor of chemistry at SVSU.

Cissell recently joined the research team to help with data analysis.

"The interesting thing about this project is you can trace where the possible infections are coming from through our wastewater, so you can pinpoint specific locations of where the infection may be," said Cissell.

SVSU will be receiving $300,000 of the state grant. Where most universities with their grant money will be receiving the equipment to do this research, SVSU will be utilizing the money to expand testing.

"For this pilot study, we are all going to use the same method and see if we can establish base lines, establish the best way to do data analysis," said Sivy. "If we can establish how we use the results of this in order to inform a community of a potential outbreak, that's the goal of this."

The pilot program will be running through December.