Detecting Covid-19 outbreaks as soon as they emerge helps governments enact preventative spread measures and reduce the severity of the surge. Using wastewater as an early detection tool, a team of researchers from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) has developed a sewage-handling robot to rapidly analyze wastewater and continuously scan for potential outbreaks.
According to researchers, their robot can scan and detect coronavirus in wastewater 30 times faster than traditional nonautomated large-scale systems. The robot can scan 24 different sewage samples in just 40 minutes to give a more comprehensive picture of infection rates in a given area. For some context, traditional methods can take six to eight hours to perform the same task.
This speed factor is critical because the sheer volume of wastewater in a city makes it more difficult to scan sewage for viral traces. Scanning more water in less time means we can detect even small traces of Covid-19 in entire sewer systems.
To perfect their technology, the researchers analyzed samples from San Diego’s main wastewater treatment plant and manholes on the UCSD campus. The researchers use magnetic beads to enrich viral particles in samples and then the robot uses a specialized magnetic head to root out viral particles and determine their concentration in a given sample.
So far, the robot is hard at work on the UCSD campus and in local San Diego County school districts to offer an early alert system for potential outbreaks as students return to in-person education. Moving forwards, the team is improving upon the robot’s design to detect Covid-19 variants and hopes to scale up their project to assist communities outside the San Diego region as well.