Capital Region pioneers in COVID-19 wastewater tracking talk expansion to testing for RSV, flu


ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — New York attempting to flush out RSV and the flu using a method that helped stem the flow of COVID-19. Governor Hochul’s office this week announcing $21.6 million in funding that will expand the state’s Wastewater Surveillance Network.

“It just gives us more information to tackle this huge challenge,” explains Professor Yanna Liang, who is also Chair of the Department of Environmental and Sustainable Engineering at UAlbany.

Liang and Associate Professor Kate Meierdiercks of Siena College were among the Capital Region pioneers to see the potential of using wastewater to track COVID trends. They say such findings can help public health agencies know where to pool their resources.

“You can amplify that gene—or several genes—so you can know whether there is this virus or not, and then—if your technique is good enough—you can quantify to tell how many of the viruses are in a given volume of wastewater,” Liang explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

“It allows the state to use those resources more efficiently and target the places that really need the support,” says Meierdiercks, who is also Chair of the Department of Environmental Studies and Sciences.

The state’s existing network helps track COVID and polio. The new funding will add pilot programs testing for more pathogens, like RSV and Influenza. Meierdiercks says the confidential method using wastewater will be particularly useful similar to the later stages of the COVID pandemic.

“Wastewater testing doesn’t rely on people self-reporting, so you tend to get a better sense of what’s happening when there’s not widespread testing,” she explains.

Of course, we needed to ask the obvious: the smell.

“Yeah, so when we are out there, some of our samples are a little bit stinky, but I also have two kids. So it was never worse than what we deal with on a day-to-day basis at home, or that our healthcare workers are handling,” laughs Meierdiercks.

“There is a processing step to remove all the other undesired components. Then you can just focus on the virus,” adds Liang.

The RSV and Influenza pilots will launch first in Erie, Onondaga, Jefferson and Westchester counties. The governor’s office says their results will help inform the future expansion of wastewater surveillance for these diseases.

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