Valley company receives federal contract for COVID-19 wastewater study

Posted at 7:17 AM, Dec 08, 2020

SCOTTSDALE — A Valley company spun out of a research team at Arizona State University was recently awarded a contract through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to collect wastewater samples at treatment plants across the country and analyze them for COVID-19.

“Our entire field has seen a drastic increase in the attention to it,” Dr. Adam Gushgari, CEO of Scottsdale-based AquaVitas, told ABC15. “One of the real benefits of this technology, we’re finding out now, [is] that the virus is actually excreted in fecal matter between three to five days before the onset of symptoms so this can really be leveraged as an early indicator.”

The first phase of the contract, set to begin as early as next week, will involve testing at 100 wastewater treatment plants nationwide, covering about 10% of the U.S. population. An optional second phase would expand that to 350 plants and 30%.

Gushgari and another co-founder of the company worked together on wastewater research — leveraging “wastewater analytics” — under Professor Rolf Halden, who leads ASU’s Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering. Halden, his students, university administrators and the City of Tempe worked together to launch a study two years ago analyzing the city’s wastewater for drug use. This year, the method and technology were used to monitor COVID-19 and viewable through the city’s Wastewater Collection Data Dashboard.

The HHS contract will involve collecting bi-weekly samples from the treatment plants with each sample representative of a 24-hour period.

“After the laboratory analysis, we obtain a value that is essentially the number of viral copies present in that wastewater sample,” Gushgari said. “That allows us to understand, ‘What are the trends that we’re seeing at that location?’”

The company provides its data to municipalities which can allow local leaders to make public health decisions and gauge how they affect outcomes faster than traditional methods. Gushgari said the method has vast potential to provide critical health information even after the pandemic ends.

“Be it stress… be it Alzheimer’s, environmental exposure… I mean, really, the list is endless of what type of health ailments we can really apply this to.”