MIT launches COVID-19 wastewater testing pilot initiative

Wastewater analysis can detect both symptomatic and asymptomatic infections

MIT introduced a wastewater testing pilot initiative to monitor COVID-19 on campus late September. The project has been implemented in seven buildings: Random House, McCormick Hall, Simmons Hall, Sidney-Pacific, Tang Hall, Westgate Apartments, and the Sloan School of Management.

The project complements the clinical testing conducted by MIT Medical, Vice President of Campus Services and Stewardship Joe Higgins and Senior Associate Dean of Housing and Residential Services (HRS) David Friedrich wrote in an email to residents Sept. 21. 

The project is a partnership between the biological engineering department’s Alm Lab; MIT Facilities; the Office of Environment, Health and Safety; Housing and Residential Services; and MIT Medical, Higgins and Friedrich wrote. 

Alm Lab research scientist Katya Moniz PhD ’14 said in an interview with The Tech that the initiative detects cases at the residential level and projects clinical data. If successful, the program may serve as a long-term adaptive testing procedure.

“A sampling device has been installed in the wastewater exit pipes of the pilot buildings. Samples will be collected daily, and tested for SARS-CoV-2,” Higgins and Friedrich wrote, noting that wastewater-based detection of SARS-CoV-2 is an “effective early warning system for COVID-19 at an aggregate level.”

“No personally identifiable information will be derived from these samples, and we will not use them for any purpose other than monitoring SARS-CoV-2,” they wrote.

The technology used in the wastewater testing initiative has been in development for years at the Alm Lab, Moniz said.

The Alm Lab will be processing wastewater samples for the fall semester. The team has extensive experience in the testing process, both at the treatment facility level and at the manhole level (serving a few thousands of people in nearby neighborhoods).

Moniz said that “data suggests there is a lot of shedding before people go to the doctor” with many pathogens “detectable in wastewater.” Symptomatic and asymptomatic infections can be detected with this method, Moniz said, which cannot “necessarily” be done clinically “because people who aren’t sick don’t come in.” Furthermore, wastewater detection “doesn’t depend on the availability of clinical testing,” making it “unbiased” and “sensitive.”

Moniz said that six of the seven buildings tested through the pilot are undergraduate and graduate residential halls chosen based on the ease of access to their wastewater pipes. 

The project team led a community meeting on Sept. 23 open to all residents of houses involved in the pilot. Friedrich wrote in an email to The Tech that “the general consensus among residents who attended these sessions was that this pilot was a welcome approach to monitoring COVID-19 in our residential community.” 

Moniz said that the reason the lab is “looking at primarily residential halls is because we know SARS-CoV-2 is excreted in stools.” By comparison, research on shedding through urine has been mixed. Consequently, the Sloan School of Management, the final building included in the project, is an opportunity for Alm Lab to further explore the mechanics of shedding and ultimately determine potential project scale-up, Moniz said.

All data collected from wastewater testing is anonymized, Moniz said, adding that since testing is performed at the aggregate scale, the method serves as a non-invasive, anonymized detection system. No student information is collected in the process, and wastewater testing is limited to COVID-19 detection.

MIT Medical’s clinical data will be used to validate the project. Moniz explained, “We want to make sure that if we’re detecting positives, that they’re true positives. We also want to make sure we’re not missing people,” in which case “we need to go back to the drawing board and find out what’s missing in our system.”

Brian Schuetz, chief of staff at MIT Medical, wrote in an email to The Tech that MIT Medical does not “foresee any major challenges in the collaboration,” but  acknowledges that “this is a new field and we don’t yet know the operational, analytical or clinical issues that may arise.”

Schuetz wrote that the initiative is “supported” by “the amazing data infrastructure in MIT Covid Apps, which provides a great platform for integrating and visualizing the testing, symptom and wastewater data.”

Friedrich wrote that while the pilot's results are currently “being reviewed and analyzed by the Institute’s Covid-19 Monitoring Team,” as “the pilot initiative progresses, we will revisit the possibility of integrating this aggregated data as part of MIT’s Covid-19 reporting data.”

The house teams and student leaders of the participating residences, as well as members of the broader MIT community, have voiced support for the project during HRS-hosted briefing sessions held for the pilot initiative, Friedrich wrote.

The project will be reevaluated at the end of the fall semester to determine the initiative’s effectiveness and any plans to continue and expand, Moniz said.

Higgins expressed hope for the initiative, writing in an email to The Tech that the wastewater-based detection program “adds another dimension to the system of protection in place today” and “has the potential to transform how we approach Covid-19 detection over the long-term.”