Microbiology alumni collaborate on COVID-19 wastewater tests

Left: Microbiology alumnus David Townsend (BS '88). Top right: Dan Broder (MS ’99, PhD ’03). Bottom right: Brian Swalla (BS ’95, MS ’98, PhD ’03)

Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic, University of Illinois alumnus David Townsend (BS ’88, microbiology) and members of his team at IDEXX Laboratories have developed a test to monitor the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater that rapidly detects the virus’ genetic material.

Townsend, who also earned a PhD from Illinois State University in 1992, is director of research & development and operations at IDEXX Laboratories, Inc., a company that specializes in developing diagnostic tests for the veterinary health and water testing industries. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, IDEXX did not use real-time reverse transcription PCR applications for wastewater testing. However, after receiving several requests from municipalities for SARS-CoV-2 wastewater tests, Townsend and his team collaborated with another division of IDEXX that specialized in PCR testing to develop a COVID-19 testing protocol that was applicable for wastewater. Within a brief nine weeks, Townsend’s team was able to put the IDEXX Water SARS-CoV-2 RT-PCR test on the market.

The IDEXX Water SARS-CoV-2 test acts as an effective surveillance tool for the spread of SARS-CoV-2, Townsend said. The current model for human COVID-19 testing is reactive and relatively infrequent, with people typically getting tested for the virus only after experiencing symptoms. Based on these test results, epidemiologists can only locate viral hotspots retroactively.

“The goal of IDEXX’s water test is to get ahead of these trends by providing local agencies the capability to monitor the occurrence of viral shedding in concentrated wastewater samples prior to any surge in emergency room visits,” Townsend said. “This can provide these communities valuable time to prepare for such an event.”

As businesses begin to reopen, the Water SARS-CoV-2 test offers a means to predict viral trends, allowing communities to adapt their infrastructures to accommodate potential outbreaks. Since COVID-19 was detected in Wuhan, China in December 2019, the virus has infected over 40 million people globally as of mid-October 2020. As COVID-19 transmission slows in the future, Townsend said the test could be useful in monitoring for the presence of COVID-19 in communities to prevent a resurgence of the virus.

Townsend collaborated with two other Illinois graduates to develop this novel wastewater COVID-19 test: Brian Swalla (BS ’95, MS ’98, PhD ’03), who served as the technical lead, and Dan Broder (MS ’99, PhD ’03), who provided support. He shared how their common core of training in microbiology at the University of Illinois allowed for a powerful partnership. During his time in the field, Townsend has noticed a recent surge in interest in biotechnology within the past few years, and he encourages students to explore and contribute to the field in order to better prepare for public health crises in the future.

October 23, 2020 All News