With limited testing capacity and asymptomatic infections, establishing infection rates of COVID-19 has been nearly impossible for health officials in Utah. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality, along with researchers from across the state — including a group at BYU — are taking extreme measures in hopes of tracking down the elusive answer.

The team, which includes BYU professor Zach Aanderud as one of three researchers providing scientific expertise, is monitoring wastewater flushed away from homes and businesses to see if it provides a better understanding of true coronavirus infection rates.

“Not everyone gets tested,” Aanderud said. “But almost everyone goes to the bathroom daily, which could make this metric extremely useful for educating the public about the severity of cases in their communities.”

The researchers quantify the concentration of COVID-19 specific RNA in composite 24-hour wastewater samples from wastewater treatment facilities across Utah by: inactivating the virus, centrifuging and filtering the wastewater, extracting RNA, and using RT-qPCR to quantify the number of COVID-19 gene copies. The method, developed by project lead Jennifer Weidhaas of the University of Utah, has already proven successful in tests on samples from communities with high infection rates, including Park City and Salt Lake County.

COVID-19 is a difficult virus to track because of its long incubation period. The method introduced by the researchers will be useful in detecting the virus in smaller geographical areas, otherwise known as sewersheds, that give more localized data than even county infection rates. It may prove to be an effective and efficient way to assess infection rates without sampling thousands of people and actually capturing the levels of asymptomatic infection.

“We know there’s a very real possibility that people are excreting virus whether they are symptomatic or not,” Utah Division of Water Quality director Erica Gaddis told KSL.

The pilot study is continuing to move forward and is including samples from communities with relatively lower infection rates. Partners include researchers from the University of Utah, Utah State University, the Utah Division of Water Quality and several state and municipal agencies. A number of wastewater treatment plants also volunteered to participate in the sample collection efforts.

The researchers point out it is important to know the virus is not alive in the way they are handling the samples. Instead, they are looking at genetic materials to detect infection rates and how they vary across the state.

“We hope this study fills important data gaps to better understand trends in COVID-19 community infection rates statewide,” Aanderud said.

This method of testing could be crucial for tracking virus hotspots and offer daily updates on localized viral infection rates.