Creating an Open and Safe Campus

Innovative technology developed by Technion researchers will enable a safe return to campus

Technology for detecting the coronavirus in the sewage system will provide information about outbreaks of the pandemic in near real-time.

1. The researchers and representatives from Kando install the sampling system at Technion

Technology developed by Technion – Israel Institute of Technology researchers will make it possible for students, faculty, and staff to safely return to campus. As part of the “Creating an open and safe campus” initiative, which was launched this week, Technion’s management decided to implement a technology that samples the campus’s sewage system and detects COVID-19 outbreaks on campus at an early stage. As a result, the further spread of the virus can be avoided.

The technology was developed by a research group led by Professor Eran Friedler of the Environmental and Water Engineering Department of the Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering, with researchers from the Ministry of Health, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and the Kando company. The system monitors SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater and provides data on outbreaks and their geographic dispersal on campus – information essential for early warning and for blocking the virus’ spread.

“It is extremely important to bring students, faculty members, and staff back to campus in order to return to a healthy and safe routine of teaching and researching on campus alongside the virus,” said Technion President Professor Uri Sivan. “Until a vaccine or treatment is found, we must break the chain of transmission through early detection of outbreak locations, and monitoring the virus in the sewage system will help us in this mission. The Technion campus is one of the first places to implement this innovative technology for constant monitoring of the coronavirus, and we will receive up-to-date information in near-real-time regarding coronavirus outbreaks and their locations on campus. As a result, we will be able to deal with them at an early stage and block the spread.”

One of the important advantages of monitoring the coronavirus through the sewage system is the rapid and early mapping of a large population, including asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. Because the virus is present in human excreta, it finds its way to the sewage system naturally through defecation. Continuous monitoring is expected to make it possible to prevent recurrences of the virus at an early stage. Wastewater-based epidemiology that monitors bacteria and viruses already exists in the world, and in Israel, polio viruses were discovered in the sewage in 2013 – which led to a vaccination campaign that blocked its spread and prevented an outbreak.

2. Part of the research team from the Environmental and Water Engineering Department at Technion. From left: Dr. Yonatan Sharabi, Prof. Eran Friedler, Dr. Yuval Alfiya

“The sewage system is designed in a hierarchical manner, making it possible to divide each zone into smaller areas,” explains Prof. Friedler. “Consequently, we can monitor the wastewater at specific points and determine the coronavirus concentrations in that area. In this way, we can focus on areas with high infection rates without testing the population itself and without needing to reach many individuals, at least until the location of the outbreak is identified.”

The Technion campus project will take samples from 10 manholes via the Kando company’s smart, automatic sampling system, and will detect outbreaks according to the concentration of virus RNA in the wastewater. The samples undergo a chemical and microbial-molecular analysis: they are transferred to a special lab, where the virus RNA undergoes a process of concentration and extraction from the sewage, followed by detection and quantification using qPCR. The tests will be carried out at the end of each sampling day and the findings will be used for evaluating ongoing vulnerabilities and determining priorities for extensive surveys of people coming to the campus.

Last May, Prof. Friedler’s research group was a partner together with researchers from Ben Gurion University, Israel Ministry of Health, and Kando company in the first city-scale pilot project of its kind in Israel, which took place in Ashkelon – a city of 150,000 residents. Ashkelon is divided into neighborhoods and sampling was carried out in selected sewage manholes. The virus was detected in the city’s wastewater and the researchers successfully identified different concentrations of the virus, which indicated different levels of infection in different neighborhoods. Moreover, they succeeded in detecting the outbreak of a second wave in the city before it was discovered through traditional testing methods.

A comprehensive nationwide study is currently underway in partnership with the Ministry of Health B.G. University and Kando involving sampling of sewage systems of 14 Israeli cities. The goal is to obtain a clear picture as to which cities and neighborhoods have COVID-19 patients and to improve the methodology. In the future, this technology will provide a more precise image and will detect COVID-19 outbreaks at early stages, so that general lockdowns can be avoided.

According to Prof. Friedler, “Our experiments show that the system we developed is effective in identifying hotspots of coronavirus outbreaks, and in the future, we will also be able to use it for early detection of other diseases.”

In order to maximize the monitoring of coronavirus outbreaks at Technion, protect the health of the dorm residents, and reduce the spread of the virus as much as possible, Technion has put a coronavirus PCR testing site at the disposal of students, in collaboration with the Rambam Health Care Center. The tests are carried out under strict privacy protocols and will complete the overall picture on campus.