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Real-Time Wastewater Monitoring Enables Rapid COVID-19 Outbreak Detection

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In recent weeks, an increasing amount of data has been emerging that indicates SARS-CoV-2 was present in locations including The Netherlands, US, China, Australia and Barcelona well before cases were identified by medics. This data has been coming from wastewater. Contributed to by everyone, wastewater is proving to be an ingenious metric for monitoring the health of a city on a massive scale.

When someone is infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus replicates inside their body. Some of that viral RNA is excreted in their feces, which then passes into wastewater when they flush the toilet. By detecting SARS-CoV-2 genetic material in wastewater, scientists are able to determine if members of the community are infected, track the source of the infection and estimate the number of people infected. This large-scale real-time monitoring can reduce the need for laborious and expensive testing of individuals by enabling efforts to be targeted to problematic areas. Consequently, it can reduce the impact of precaution measures on people’s daily lives and speed up the process by which new outbreaks are detected and controlled.

We spoke to Ari Goldfarb, CEO of
Kando, about how their wastewater monitoring technology works and how it is being applied to the current monitoring efforts in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Karen Steward (KS): Can you tell us about how and why Kando came to be founded?

Ari Goldfarb (AG):
From a very young age, I have had a passion for surfing and the sea, so it was natural for me to dedicate my career to impactful environmental technologies and water management. I founded Kando in 2011 with a vision to improve the quality of the wastewater being released into the environment and create better and healthier ecosystems. Our cutting-edge wastewater technology provides clean water solutions to cities around the world, enabling them to manage precious water resources better, reduce environmental pollution, and improve public health.

KS: How does the system work, what analytical science is the system built on and is it the same irrespective of the analyte you are hoping to monitor? How are analytes of interest detected, tracked and quantified?

Kando's Internet of Things (IoT) units use a set of electrochemical and optical sensors to collect raw wastewater data from city sewage networks in real time. In some cases, an automatic sampler is deployed to collect wastewater for further lab analysis, which is then examined through machine learning capabilities. A cloud-based analytics engine then transforms that big data into actionable insights, which is showcased on a dashboard for utilities and wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) to utilize in their daily operations.

We have a unique method
of measuring wastewater upstream – from WWTPs back towards the city itself – allowing us to focus in on specific neighborhoods and even individual streets in real-time to trace anomalies and contaminants to their source. Building on our experience in monitoring industrial and municipal effluent in cities’ wastewater systems, we combine big data and IoT capabilities with proprietary algorithms to calculate key measurements (i.e. industrial waste vs. urban waste, water chemistry properties and pollution levels). It is our experience measuring these parameters, and data accumulated over the years that allow us to detect contamination “hot spots,” identify trends and help authorities to contain future outbreaks.

By focusing on the behavior of the wastewater stream, we are able to track and detect, and in some cases even quantify, the impact of events of interest. This unique wastewater data enables WWTPs to operate more efficiently, reducing energy use, materials, costs and labor demands, while improving detection of wastewater pollutants and polluters significantly.

KS: What purposes has the technology been used for? Can you tell us a bit more about its application to COVID-19 testing?

Kando’s patented wastewater management solution uses IoT sensors and cloud-based analytics to provide unique and actionable insights from inside networks in real time. Automated alerts, projections, and reports allow utilities, cities, and policymakers to reduce expenses, negative environmental impacts, and wastewater-related problems.

The technology has been used to detect illicit industrial discharges, enabling Kando to evaluate their impact on the network and treatment process. This allows WWTPs to detect odor sources, inflow and infiltration – where storm and groundwater infiltrate the wastewater management system – and illicit sewage seepage into the rain collection network.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,
Kando has adapted its existing solution to pinpoint and detect coronavirus outbreaks in real-time by identifying the virus’ RNA in city sewage systems. Kando collects wastewater samples and analyzes it at a number of laboratories. Those findings help direct the search within the sewage system's pipes with a variety of factors in mind – including the concentration of materials that can dilute or destroy the virus such as industrial waste, sewage flow rate, etc. The result is precise and pinpointed data indicating the location and degree of an infected population. Our hope is to reduce unnecessary lockdowns by pinpointing specific hotspots, allowing authorities to avoid sweeping shelter-at-home orders.

KS: Can you discuss some of the confounding factors (such as variations in wastewater volumes, temperature etc.) in wastewater analysis and how your system deals with these?

There are a variety of complex factors that need to be taken into account when sampling wastewater and calculating the size of an infected population. Kando’s IoT units and AI algorithms constantly measure water flow, industrial versus residential wastewater ratio, and the concentration of key chemical compounds present in the network. The flow value is crucial in order to reflect the RNA concentration accurately, correlating it to the population size – a higher flow with a similar concentration implies a larger population is infected. Similarly, a higher portion of industrial wastewater in a sample with a given RNA concentration would indicate a larger number of cases. Wastewater sampling locations and timing also have to be precise, ensuring samples represent target populations and aren’t contaminated by industrial compounds.

KS: What are the challenges you have faced in interpreting wastewater analysis data and how have these been overcome?

Wastewater is muddled and chaotic, so single measurements can be inaccurate or misleading. Kando’s ongoing, real-time measurements gather data from sewers throughout the city, enabling us to sift through the chaos in order to measure the number of those infected with the virus more accurately. If taking measurements of a city’s sewage system is equivalent to a blood test, then we are the “cardiologists” with enormous experience improving a city’s environmental wellbeing.

KS: Do you think wastewater testing could be used to predict future unknown potential pandemics before they become established and spread?

Everything that happens in cities ends up in the sewers. By measuring municipal sewage systems in real time, we can utilize this big data and react based on the insights we compile. The system can analyze any given location and, together with laboratory analysis, we can detect if there are signs of a new epidemic on the horizon. This will allow cities to manage and control COVID-19 outbreaks better – and any future epidemics as well. By limiting lockdowns to specific areas, these insights can influence millions of peoples’ lives and save countless jobs. We hope to increase awareness of how maintaining the wellbeing of our cities’ sewage systems will keep both people and the environment healthy.

Ari Goldfarb was speaking to Dr Karen Steward, Science Writer for Technology Networks.