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How sewage samples help trace the spread of COVID-19

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Biobot Analytics CEO and Co-Founder Mariana Matus joins Yahoo Finance’s Zack Guzman to discuss how scientists are using sewage as a collective sample to measure infection levels for the coronavirus.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: A lot of questions have been surrounding the idea or chances of a second wave of COVID-19 infections here in the US as businesses start to open up, which is why testing is importantly going to be the main thing that will keep us informed. And an interesting new approach is being taken by one startup, shifting away potentially from the more in-person testing to testing sewage across the country and trying to get a jump on where hot spots might be.

And for more on testing all of our waste in our sewer systems, we're joined by the CEO and co-founder of the company doing just that. Biobot Analytics CEO Mariana Matus joins us right now. Mariana, appreciate you taking the time. I mean, where did this thinking come from? And what advantage does it kind of give you guys in helping the public health officials kind of see these hot spots or new cases start to come up before maybe some other testing methods might?

MARIANA MATUS: Yeah, absolutely. So the the novel coronavirus is shed in human waste of patients who are COVID-19 positive, and it makes its way into the waste water infrastructure, where we can then go out, collect samples, and test an entire population, an entire municipality, an entire county with a single test. So we can get an early warning system of how many new cases we're going to be seeing over the next week or so.

ZACK GUZMAN: And you guys have been working with officials in 42 states across the country. I mean, that's a lot of data, a lot of sewage to be working with here. When you look at that, though, what have you learned maybe from your initial testing? And what has it revealed about maybe how this pandemic has spread, maybe more so than people thought?

MARIANA MATUS: Yeah, so we are right now testing 400 wastewater treatment facilities across 42 states in the country, which together, they represent about 10% of the US population that we tested every week during the months of April and May. And number one, we have produced the largest testing data set in the country-- clinical testing has only tested a fraction of that number-- and for way more affordable.

And second, we've been able to see that the wastewater data in general gives you a heads up about the level of the infection with a few days in advance, which means that going forward we can look at waste water as a tool to predict second waves or the re-emergence of the virus in a community, in a work of place, in a nursing home.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah. So I guess it's surprising to hear they could get that granular. But I mean, when we look at testing so far, since states have started to reopen their economies, you know, it's been about a month in some of these states since they've at least had a fraction of their workforce go back to work. The testing we've seen there from the methods that we've been using have not necessarily indicated a second wave since that's happened. Has your data pointed to a similar picture so far as we hit June here?

MARIANA MATUS: So so far, indeed, the data seems to be stable. But the power of this technology is that we can repeat again and again, you know, every few days to then get that early warning if there's any second wave coming in a particular area. And it's just so much scalable than what you can achieve with a patient-level testing that it enables you to test the same population very frequently in an affordable way, and very inclusive as well.

Because this information, as you can imagine, includes everyone who is using the toilet. It doesn't matter if you are lacking access to your health care. It doesn't matter if you cannot skip job to go to the doctor. It's really capturing everyone. And I think that's going to be the advantage here that waste water gives you over the other testing opportunities you have.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, I mean, quite frankly I hope that everyone here would fall into that category of using the toilet, but you never know. There are caveats. I mean, when we look at this, though-- one last question before I let you go-- the cost, as you mentioned, is so much cheaper. How much cheaper do you think on a per capita basis or for a city trying to measure this would it be to kind of rely more so on your testing method versus the traditional ones we've seen?

MARIANA MATUS: It's not even comparable. So we could be testing through wastewater. 75% percent of the US population is connected to wastewater infrastructure. We could be testing 75% of the US population on a weekly basis with 10,000 samples.

ZACK GUZMAN: Got it. Well, you're going to have to keep us posted. When you get this data in, you're going to have to keep us posted. Appreciate it you taking the time to chat with us today. Biobot Analytics CEO and co-founder Mariana Matus. Appreciate it.