The omicron variant served notice of COVID-19's ability to quickly evolve and outpace our ability to control it. But human capabilities are improving swiftly, too, as the battle against this new pathogen continues into its third year.
One scientific advance involves work at surprising locations: Minnesota wastewater treatment plants.
Data mined from sewage could help control the COVID-19 pandemic by detecting new variants and predicting future surges. It could help fight other pathogens in the same way. That's why the innovative teamwork behind this, led by the University of Minnesota Medical School, deserves a spotlight.
Yes, there is a yuck factor and along with it, an irresistible urge for writers to make puns about data dumps and downloads. But turning what we've flushed into a weapon against COVID and other infectious diseases is smart thinking.
It appears that poop could be a gold mine of information when it comes to COVID viral circulation. We all answer nature's call, and in doing so, shed viral RNA as well if infected. Scientists can measure concentrations of that genetic material in samples collected downstream, with the data providing an early warning about viral spread in the area served.
"We have shown repeatedly through each surge that measures of RNA in wastewater reliably predict up to two weeks in advance increases in cases and we've published that," said Dr. Tim Schacker, vice dean for research at the U's medical school. "There are data now that are being published from other centers, who have smaller catchment areas than we do, and they're reporting a similar thing.
"I think these methods are pretty sound."
Minnesota isn't the first state to surveil wastewater for COVID. Similar efforts are underway in Boston and Seattle and elsewhere. But Minnesota's wide catchment area includes 67% of the state's population.
Advance notice of viral spread could help health care systems prepare for more illness and the public to take action. The data gathered can also detect the arrival and spread of individual variants and could also serve as a sentinel against other pathogens.
The U's medical school is admirably working on a public dashboard to share the new insights gleaned, and we hope it does as expeditiously as possible. It did recently release viral load breakdowns by regions within the state. The information is available online at bit.ly/UofMCOVIDdata. While it looks as if the metro may be on the downside of the current omicron surge, some other areas may not be so fortunate.
The Metropolitan Council has made its surveillance data public. It's available online at bit.ly/MetCouncilCOVID.
This savvy scientific work involving unexpected data gathering sites offers hope that pandemic-inspired innovations will guard against future outbreaks. The details provide a fascinating and timely morale booster as a wearying pandemic continues.