Fecal testing for COVID-19 put on hold in Austin due to lack of funding

Coronavirus

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Around this time last year, we told you that researchers at the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas were testing wastewater samples across Austin to predict when cases of COVID-19 may be on the rise. That data was being shared with public health entities.

“If you can have a warning that an outbreak is coming, you can gear up your medical personnel and say, you know, ‘We can see that there’s this huge spike. They haven’t arrived in the hospital, yet, but get ready,’” Professor Mary Jo Kirisits, who is leading that team at Cockrell School of Engineering, told us in September 2020.

But now, as the delta variant continues to spread across Central Texas, KXAN has learned fecal samples stopped being analyzed for COVID-19 in January.

The reason? Funding.

“There’s personnel costs, so there’s students that are doing the work and there’s also reagents that we need and some of these reagents have been in short supply and in quite high demand as you might imagine during the pandemic because lots of people are doing testing,” Kirisits said.

Meanwhile, the Houston Health Department posted on Twitter this week saying COVID-19 in Houston’s wastewater is 320% more than in July of last year. They said it’s an indication that the virus is spreading rapidly and that COVID-19 cases will continue to rise.

Graph shows COVID-19 wastewater test results in Houston
The level of SARS-CoV-2 in Houston’s wastewater is 320% more than the benchmark level of July 6, 2020 (Graph courtesy Houston Health Department)

Kirisits says more research is needed to really determine whether or not that’s true.

“This can be due to a variety of things and I don’t think we have enough information to say what it is from yet,” she said. “Some of the variants cause higher viral loads than the original wild type strain.”

Even though we’ve seen more of the virus load in nasal passages, we don’t know yet if we’ll see higher levels of it in poop too. That could be the reason for the spike in Houston, Kirisits said.

But that sort of information can only be learned through research, research that right now is on hold here in Austin.

“We’re in discussions with other funding partners at this time,” Kirisits said.

Samples from both wastewater plants are still being collected, but are waiting to be analyzed. A timeline for when that funding might be secured, and testing continued, is unclear right now.

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