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Murray State Tests Mayfield Wastewater for COVID
By Tim Brockwell
MURRAY - A new testing program at Murray State University that analyzes Mayfield wastewater samples is helping identify the early stages of potential COVID-19 outbreaks by measuring virus markers.

Murray State University researchers Associate Professor of Cellular and Molecular Biology Dr. Gary ZeRuth and Assistant Professor of Analytical Chemistry Dr. Bikram Subedi are leading the testing program, which analyzes wastewater samples from Mayfield's treatment plant sites.

The project, which began in early November, is a partnership between the Graves County Health Department, Mayfield Electric and Water Systems, Murray State University, the University of Louisville Co-Immunity Project and the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

Subedi said the wastewater testing can serve as an an early warning system, giving health officials up to a week of additional time to prepare for an outbreak. This will allow communities to better focus resources to where they're needed most in the earliest stages of an outbreak, before many people experience symptoms. 

"What we've found so far is basically a very good correlation between the virus copies in wastewater with the cases that the health department in Mayfield has been reporting. We're getting two samples every week. The good thing about this is representing not only the people who go to the hospital and do the test, but also the pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic people." Subedi said.

The virus copies seen in wastewater samples represent the total number of infectious people in the community, according to Subedi, something he says will paint a much more accurate picture of virus prevalence in a community. 

"This is compared to the health department data that reports only the people who go to the hospital and get tested," He said. "Therefore, our data tells us a comprehensive story in the community about how many people are being infected."

This kind of testing is relatively new in the United States, but it's been used more widely in other parts of the world as a way to monitor drug use in communities. Subedi said it could also potentially be used to look for other virus types like influenza and different variants of the COVID virus. 

"Analytically we need a different set of probes to detect [different COVID variants]. We have been thinking about it, but we have not done that yet. As soon as we know what probe works for a specific variant we will be able to do that here." He said. "As soon as the COVID pandemic started, there's so many labs throughout the country that have been doing this analysis. The application of this type of technique is really burgeoning, but it's still limited."

Subedi said the MSU lab has recently begun testing wastewater in Murray as well, and there are plans to expand the program to other communities in the commonwealth. 

Published 03:49 PM, Friday Jan. 15, 2021
Updated 09:28 PM, Sunday Jan. 17, 2021

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