A University of Missouri lab found Delta Variant in wastewater nearly a month before the first patient tested positive

Coronavirus

JEFFERSON CITY, MO. — For the first time since January, Missouri is reporting more than 2,300 new COVID-19 cases. 

The University of Missouri continues testing wastewater for COVID, but now researchers said they are finding the Delta Variant in nearly every single sample. 

The lab at Mizzou is the sole location wastewater from around the state is tested. Marc Johnson, a Mizzou professor who is leading the study, says the variant spread so fast, they barely had time to warn the state. 

“We’re pretty fast with our testing, but that virus almost outran us,” Johnson said. “It’s amazing how fast that thing spread.”

It’s a dirty but important job. For more than a year, a lab inside the Bond Life Science Center at Mizzou has been testing hundreds of samples of wastewater. 

“Most people shed SARS-CoV-2 into the wastewater before they even have systems often, so we can actually give a slight lead on an outbreak,” Johnson said. 

 But lately, Johnson and his team are busy researching the Delta Variant. He said the lab hasn’t had a sample without strain since June 7. 

“We not only know that it’s COVID, but we also can now sequence it and tell you which variants are there, and we are seeing a lot of Delta these days,” Johnson said. “It spread so fast it was hard to keep up but at least we gave the state a heads-up that this is really spreading fast.”

The Mizzou lab receives around nine gallons of wastewater from treatment facilities across the state weekly, which equals around 200 samples. Johnson said the wastewater comes from 96 communities, including St. Louis and Kansas City, once a week and 36 state facilities, like mental hospitals, veterans’ homes, and prisons, once, sometimes twice a week. 

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources provides the wastewater treatment facilities with the kits, boxes, bags, and tubes for the lab to test the samples. 

“We get the data and usually within a matter of hours forward that data to the Department of Health and Senior Services and within the next day they upload that information to all the county health departments,” Johnson said. 

He said the lab has been looking for variants since the UK strain. 

“By February, we started doing the sequencing, and that has been incredibly interesting,” Johnson said. “When we first started, the UK variant has just barely arrived. There was only one facility when we started that had a significant amount of UK and we wanted within two months it had really displaced all the virus that had been circulating in 2019. It took over.”

Johnson said his lab first detected the Delta Variant nearly a month before the first patient tested positive. 

“We detected it in the first wastewater facility on May 10, a week later we saw it in four different wastewater treatment facilities, and by the third week it was everywhere,” Johnson said. “It was across the state, all different parts.”

According to Johnson, the state’s database said the first patient tested positive on June 1, and it was only one case. 

The Mizzou professor doesn’t expect the Delta Variant to be the last. 

“I’m sure we will see more variants, as everyone gets immunity the easy way or the hard way, gets vaccine or gets infected, it’s going to happen to almost everyone, that it will change and it will become less and less of a deadly virus,” Johnson said.

Compared to testing a sample for COVID-19, which only takes a few hours, Johnson said it can take up to eight days to get the results back from a variant sample. 

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services post the results from the wastewater testing on their website. Click here to see the map. 

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