BLOOMINGTON, Ind.– Indiana University is partnering with the city of Bloomington and Monroe County to test wastewater samples for traces of COVID-19, flu and monkeypox.

“We need to better understand how disease is progressing through the population,” said Vic Kelson, director of utilities for the city of Bloomington. “Wastewater sample is a great tool for that.”

Inside the lab at IU School of Public Health, students are analyzing wastewater samples collected from the Bloomington area. 

“So what we’re able to do is collect wastewater samples here at the plant and we can send it off to a lab,” said Jason Wenning, who works for the City of Bloomington Utilities Dept.

Student scientists are testing for three viruses. 

“Currently we’re looking at monitoring COVID, monkeypox and flu,” said Justin Greaves, assistant professor at Environmental Occupational Health at IU Bloomington. “These three are, especially with COVID, emerging pathogens that have been spreading quite a bit in the population. They also happen to be present in wastewater as well. So we can detect them and gives us an idea how much is spreading throughout the population.”

The samples don’t have to travel far, cutting down costs and wait times for results. 

“It’s a great experience for students working in the lab,” Wenning said. “Being able to work on a project really helping the community.”

The goal of the project is to one day be able to predict an outbreak in a community before it happens. 

“Levels of the virus will show up in wastewater generally days before people start to see increased case numbers and hospitalizations alike,” Wenning said.

This can be a vital tool for local health departments.  

“Having the samples turn around quickly gives us a better chance to have health department and public officials inform the public what’s happening,” Kelson said. “That’s really what we’re about.”

All while providing unique opportunities for the next generation of scientists. 

“We’re teaching this next generation to use tools they haven’t necessarily thought of to monitor and mitigate effects of a pandemic,” Greaves said. “The possibilities are endless.”