Finding coronavirus in Tacoma’s sewage could help fight a new outbreak

TACOMA, Wash. — Scientists have begun testing sewage in Tacoma and Pierce County and finding evidence of the coronavirus in wastewater -- and they say that’s a good thing.

“The tests are very similar to the molecular tests that you read about that we have shortages of,” said Dr. David Hirschberg, founder of the Readiness Acceleration and Innovation Network, or RAIN.

“We have gone and looked at Tacoma, we’ve also gone in Pierce County and so both of those were positive. Pretty much every test we’ve done is positive,” said Hirschberg.

Hirschberg said detecting the virus in sewage sludge is not a threat to employees at Tacoma's sewage treatment facility. But finding coronavirus in sewage could be a valuable tool. By tracking it in waste water scientists could be able to determine whether or not it is present in the local population even before an outbreak.

“It’s about having tools to be able to do surveillance,” said Dr. Stan Langevin, RAIN’s head of scientific development. “The tool you do not want to use is hospitalization and death to be able to make public health decisions on an outbreak.”

Hirschberg established the RAIN as a biotech incubator in Tacoma in 2017 to do projects like this. Now, his team is doing the scientific detective work of searching for a deadly virus before it strikes.

“Both Stan and I have been in this idea of tripwires or surveillance for years and years. So, you want early warning, you want to be able to not be caught off guard,” said Hirschberg.

RAIN is also working on methods to validate test kits for the coronavirus and blood tests to determine whether or not people contracted the virus without knowing it.