MOREHEAD CITY — A local researcher is at the forefront of studying how wastewater can be used to detect and track the novel coronavirus, helping public health officials in North Carolina better understand COVID-19 and how it spreads throughout communities.
Dr. Rachel Noble is a researcher with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City. As a molecular biologist with a particular focus on water quality, Dr. Noble is leading a team of researchers from multiple universities, with technical support from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, in tracking the novel coronavirus in wastewater systems across a range of municipalities in the state, including Beaufort, Newport, Morehead City and about 15 other locations.
“We’re doing work across the entire state of North Carolina, so a lot of different wastewater plants are represented in our work,” Dr. Noble told the News-Times.
The work is being funded through the N.C. Policy Collaboratory, which received a $29 million appropriation through the N.C. General Assembly in May to support research on treatment, community testing and prevention of COVID-19. Dr. Noble has received nearly $2 million to carry out the wastewater surveillance effort, and she will also be involved with a similar project the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is kicking off this year.
Specifically, Dr. Noble and her team have been testing wastewaster for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the novel strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Using collection and distillation methods Dr. Noble said have been perfected over the past several months, researchers test the water samples for the presence of the virus, and the data is aggregated so it can be analyzed for larger trends, such as whether cases are rising or falling in a particular location.
“We’re still at the point where we’re looking at trends and patterns,” she said. “We can’t use clinical testing perfectly because it’s not perfect, and we can’t use the wastewater testing perfectly because it’s not perfect either, but when you start to put them together, we get a little more power and a little more insight into the community.”
Through their research, Dr. Noble and others have discovered wastewater testing can detect SARS-CoV-2 before a person even knows they have COVID-19. Dr. Noble said people often shed the virus several days before they begin showing symptoms, leading to about a three- to five-day lag between when a person is actually infected and when the case is recorded through clinical testing means.
“It looks like there is a quality of the wastewater data that allows us to have a little bit of a crystal ball into what’s coming on the clinical side,” Dr. Noble said.
That knowledge can be used by health care officials, for example, to prepare for a potential surge of cases, among other practical uses, Dr. Noble said. The method can also detect asymptomatic cases and cases of those who do not seek testing, meaning it can present a more complete picture of the true prevalence of COVID-19 in a community than clinical testing alone.
On the other hand, Dr. Noble is hopeful as COVID-19 vaccinations begin to ramp up, the wastewater data will show a decline in the virus for the first time since the pandemic began last March.
“Hopefully, at some point, we’re going to see that those kinds of signals that we’re measuring in the wastewater are going to come down, and what we’re hoping is that those are going to be precursors, or a crystal ball once again, of the impact of the vaccine,” she said. “We haven’t seen that yet because not enough people are vaccinated, but at some point in the spring, I would really, really hope that we actually start to see declines in the concentrations because the vaccine is beginning to take hold in our communities.”
Contact Elise Clouser at email@example.com; by phone at 252-726-7081 ext. 229; or follow on Twitter @eliseccnt.