Milwaukee Researcher Looks For Signs Of COVID-19 In Human Waste

May 19, 2020

Coronavirus is a respiratory virus, but a Milwaukee researcher is looking for signs of the virus somewhere you may not expect: human waste.

For years, scientist Sandra McLellan’s team has been tracking bacteria that can impact public health. McLellan is a professor at UWM’s School of Freshwater Sciences.

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"Because we’ve done sewage surveillance for bacteria for so long, when we started hearing reports that it might be in sewage, that was the first thing that came to mind — of course, we should be sampling sewage,” McLellan says.

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In February, weeks before Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers launched his now-defunct safer-at-home order, McLellan began brainstorming with colleagues around the country, especially at Stanford University.

"You really need the environmental virologists. They're the ones that are way on the forefront of working out the methods and looking at maybe what some of the best practices are, which really enable people like me, that normally work with bacteria, to jump in and do the extraction part of it,” McLellan says.

Initially, she envisioned sending local samples to the West Coast for analysis. “But there's such a need for it that we decided to try and set it up regionally here in Wisconsin,” McLellan says.

Other communities, including Racine and Green Bay, are now harvesting and freezing samples. McLellan’s lab is gearing up to analyze the samples.

Sandra McLellan and her team are staggering the time they spend in her lab at UWM's School of Freshwater Sciences. WUWM's Susan Bence chatted with her from a distance in McLellan's garage.
Credit Susan Bence

"We’re systematically thinking about what the workflow might look and how we can do this, not just archiving them but start to do it in real-time — where we can get answers weekly for the communities that might be impacted,” McLellan says.

She says sampling across the state could lead to Wisconsin creating a surveillance system. At the same time, McLellan is careful not to overpromise.

"You cannot tell how many people are sick based on what you find in sewage,” McLellan says.

But ongoing monitoring could detect trends.

"As we do more social distancing, we’ll see it go down. And if we have outbreaks or it's spreading, we may see the trend go up. So, it’s potentially a really great early warning system,” McLellan says.

She says the all hands on deck initiative is both inspiring and could serve as a blueprint to proactively handle new threats.

While traces of the coronavirus can be detected in human waste, McLellan says the virus is likely no longer infectious.

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