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UNLV researchers testing sewage for COVID mutations

Posted at 6:04 AM, Nov 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-30 09:04:18-05

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — UNLV researchers have begun doing the dirty work necessary to help fight the coronavirus pandemic led by Associate Professor Edwin Oh.

“We found that we could use wastewater to pretty much predict what was showing up in humans,” Oh said while sitting in his lab surrounded by equipment.

Oh said wastewater, more commonly known as sewage, has become a useful tool in understanding the virus and the broader pandemic because the virus passes through the human body, like everything else, into the Las Vegas sewer system.

RELATED: Las Vegas area water districts test for COVID-19 in sewage, drinking water

In conjunction with the Water Authority, Oh and his team have been collecting samples from different neighborhoods around the valley for two main reasons.

“What we’re expecting here now is that when more of the virus is present in human beings, we’re going to see more of the virus in the wastewater,” he said, “so we can track not only the presence/absence but also how much is showing up.”

By analyzing the viral load, the team of UNLV scientists could inform local health officials about certain regions of the valley experiencing heavy infection rates.

That could assist health officials in directing resources, like newly announced vaccines, to heavily affected areas.

“It is a very effective and inexpensive way of monitoring what may be going on.”

Oh said the monitoring could serve another, more ominous, purpose.

“We fully expect it to evolve,” he said, “and we want to be ready.”

Oh said by sequencing the viruses found in different samples they can detect different strains or potential mutations and help record the effectiveness of efforts like the multiple vaccines against particular types of coronavirus.

RELATED: Genomics sequencing of Nevada COVID-19 samples is under way

He said it could also give people advanced warning of any major mutation that could make a vaccine useless.

“How bad or pathogenic these changes might be we don’t quite know yet. We just know that there are changes.”

Oh said the team at UNLV has been working with others in Northern Nevada and Arizona to share results and information from their own sewage monitoring programs.

He said he hopes the process becomes formalized under state and federal leadership and eventually becomes an international monitoring effort.