Thursday 10 September 2020

Arizona dreaming

A while back, I'd pointed to the wastewater testing going on at the dorms at the University of Arizona. There, every student heading to the dorms got a Covid test on moving in. The wastewater from each dorm was tested for Covid. When samples from one hall of residence showed up positive, everyone in that building got another Covid test. All the testing is compulsory, because the University aren't idiots. 

Science Mag had a good but short summary.

By testing dorm wastewater for the coronavirus, the University of Arizona may have stomped out a potential outbreak before it could spread, The Washington Post reports. Several countries and some U.S. universities have been checking sewage for RNA from SARS-CoV-2 in people’s poop, which can signal infections shortly before clinical cases and deaths appear. In Arizona, wastewater from a student dormitory contained viral RNA just days after students—who had all tested negative for COVID-19—moved into their rooms this month. The university retested all 311 residents and dorm workers and found two students who were asymptomatic but positive for the virus; they were then quarantined, officials explained in a press conference. “If we had waited until they became symptomatic and they stayed in that dorm for days, or a week, or the whole incubation period, how many other people would have been infected?” said former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, now a faculty member at the university. That suggests sewage testing “is a very good early warning system,” environmental health scientist Kevin Thomas of the University of Queensland, St. Lucia, told The Washington Post.

 But check out as well the weekly info sessions that the University puts on. It's really rather good.

I don't know why this kind of thing isn't already in place for NZ's MIQ system. They could, like the University of Arizona, have more reliance on rapid testing - not as substitute for the PCR tests, but as addition. They could be testing the wastewater coming out of each individual facility and then giving everyone in that facility, residents and workers alike, a test if the wastewater shows anything. 

I suspect it will be well worth watching what interesting approaches come out of the US university system during all this. They have an awful lot of smart people all separately trying to solve a very hard problem, with strong incentives to get it right. A lot of them are failing as their problem is much harder than ours - they have to deal with students living off-campus as well. But there will be all kinds of interesting approaches, like Arizona's, that could point to better ways of doing things here too.

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