- New studies show that the coronavirus is shed in stool, meaning that it’s collecting in city sewers around the country.
- Biobot Analytics aims to take advantage of this distinctive data resource by testing samples from wastewater treatment plants and tracking the results on a real-time map.
- The map, as well as AI-powered predictions on the virus’ spread, could provide valuable information to city officials.
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One of the great vulnerabilities America faces in fighting COVID-19 is a lack of tests, so researchers are working around that shortage by harnessing a resource that never runs out: Poop.
A Massachusetts AI startup called Biobot Analytics launched a pro bono project with MIT and Harvard University on Friday to try to track the virus across America by testing wastewater.
New studies show that the virus causing COVID-19 is shed in stool, which means that it’s collecting in city sewers. Biobot plans to use samples from wastewater treatment plants across the US to test for the virus and then track the results on a real-time map, applying predictive analytics to try to anticipate its spread.
The system allows cities to track the scope of the outbreak without depending on individual patient testing or hospital reporting, organizers say.
There is precedent for the project. In 2013, researchers in Israel detected an outbreak of poliovirus through a wastewater epidemiology program before local clinics reported symptoms. Biobot has also previously applied its methods of combining wastewater testing and AI-powered mapping to another major US health threat: opioid addiction.
“There is an untapped resource in wastewater that can teach us about public health to someday stop global epidemics,” says Biobot Analytics cofounder Mariana Matus, who started researching these topics eight years ago as a first-year PhD student at MIT. The research grew into the MIT Underworlds Project in 2015, and became a fully-fledged company, Biobot, in 2017.
“When the COVID-19 outbreak started accelerating around the world, we realized this was exactly why we started the company,” says cofounder Newsha Ghaeli, who previously studied urban planning and architecture.
Here’s how the project works:
- After city health officials sign up for the service, Biobot will ship a sampling kit to their local wastewater treatment plant.
- Wastewater facilities will collect 24-hour composite samples and then ship the samples back to Biobot.
- Biobot will process the sewage samples in its lab to concentrate and inactivate viruses, removing key proteins so that they’re no longer contagious.
- MIT will apply a test to detect the virus and relay results to Biobot.
- Biobot will map test results for all participating communities and use AI-powered analytics to predict where the virus could spread.
Right now, teams at Biobot, Harvard, and MIT are doing the work pro bono, asking only that communities cover the costs of the sampling kit and shipping. Interested cities can fill out this form.
And if something about this distinctive resource being harnessed for research smells a little funny to you, the company has a simple message: “Sewage contains valuable information.”