Every week, campuses are monitored using this method. In this way, symptomatic and asymptomatic cases can be known about 10 days in advance.
Our waste −yes, our urine and feces− is a great source of genetic information that helps us detect and prevent SARS-CoV-2 infections.
Through its MARTEC laboratory, Tecnológico de Monterrey has managed to use this technology successfully, which is now internationally recognized (and needed).
Wastewater monitoring not only allows us to know whether someone is infected, it’s able to detect possible outbreaks 10 days in advance, identify asymptomatic cases, as well as determine the building from which each possible infection came.
This is done by looking at the virus’ RNA, using molecular biology technology called RT-qPCR (Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction).
And countries such as Israel, the Dominican Republic, and the United States are interested in applying the MARTEC method. Even Pope Francis has said that it should be replicated in the Vatican City.
Last September, the laboratory won first place in the Latin American Water Projects category at the Aquatech LATAM Awards 2021.
“We’ve awakened international interest. Our biggest advancement is our protocol with Israel. They saw a great opportunity to create synergy and we’ve worked together to set up agreements to provide technology transfer,” says Roberto Parra Saldívar, who directs the MARTEC Wastewater Monitoring Laboratory, to Tec Review.
Parra explains that Panama and the Dominican Republic are among the international parties interested.
“Even the Pope [Francis] knows about the project and believes it should be applied in a lot of countries, including the Vatican,” he says.
The laboratory is also working hand in hand with Arturo Molina, Vice Rector of Research and Technology Transfer at Tecnológico de Monterrey, to start up monitoring support in different U.S. states.
Regarding winning the LATAM Awards 2021, Parra explains that “It’s important because it’s an event that takes place in parallel with lots of countries, such as the Netherlands, the United States, and Mexico. It’s time to show that Tecnológico de Monterrey’s science has real impact. In the midst of a pandemic, it’s saving lives.”
Recently, Mexico City’s Secretariat of Education, Science, Technology, and Innovation (SECTEI) -MARTEC’s funding provider- approved a second project to identify variants of the novel coronavirus.
In the future, the Tec de Monterrey laboratory wants to launch a Monitoring Institute focused on epidemiology and widen collaboration with Monterrey’s Water and Drainage Department.
What’s more, MARTEC hopes to cover the whole of Mexico City and send the results to those decision makers involved.
For now, they’re only sent to Mexico City’s Water Operator (SACMEX), but they want to expand it to include the Ministries of Health.
“When the pandemic began, we were starting from scratch. We knew very little and were flying blind. There was a lot we didn’t know. But now, with MARTEC, we can take control of our own safety,” says Roberto Parra.
This method yields weekly results based on an epidemiological traffic light system, which allows the correct decisions to be made, such as reducing capacity, closing buildings, or even returning a campus to remote mode and preventing increases in infections.
MARTEC started in 2017, when Tecnológico de Monterrey, Arizona State University, Dublin City University in Ireland, and King’s College London won funding from the Global Consortium for Sustainability Outcomes (GCSO).
“We started looking at urban metabolism. Basically, we took wastewater from U.S. megacities and developed analytical methods for monitoring substances such as drugs, antibiotics, and antidepressants. But when the pandemic began, this technique was just what we needed to start tracking the virus on our campuses,” explains Parra.
This technology regards cities as living organisms. By looking at its “waste”, scientists can tell whether one of these organisms is taking drugs, antibiotics, antidepressants, and can even give warnings about diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
“It’s known as an urban metabolism observatory and it’s one of the main pillars to ensuring the health of megacities. You can’t have a smart city without an observatory,” says Parra.
The technology concentrates, purifies, and amplifies the signal of the forensic fingerprint left by a virus’ RNA.
“SARS-CoV-2 is in every bodily fluid. We can detect it before an individual develops symptoms. The virus’ RNA is detected through the use of molecular biology technology called RT-qPCR (Reverse Transcription Polymerase Chain Reaction),” explains Mariel Oyervides, a postdoctoral researcher at the MARTEC laboratory.
So, when a sample tests positive, we can track down and accurately determine which building the RNA particle came from and roll out the appropriate protocols for containing outbreaks.
Eduardo Sosa, part of the MARTEC laboratory team, recalls informing people about the first asymptomatic case and warning them. Everyone was very surprised at how it had been detected.
“The case was treated, and we prevented the chain of infection from expanding. It was one of the first times they saw the power of MARTEC, and we were happy to help slow down the pandemic from the laboratory. Now, they ask if the results are ready every Thursday morning,” he says.
“We’ve developed tools for the new SARS-CoV-2 variants with real-time sequencing and detection,” Oyervides explains.
MARTEC has adapted to the new variants. With a normal case of coronavirus, symptoms appear between days 10 and 12, but with the Delta variant, symptoms begin four to five days earlier.
So, the team has modified their turnaround time to provide prompt warnings.
What’s more, the team is also working on technology to take this monitoring system to more places and simplify the process.
One of the solutions they’ve found is to use passive samplers placed in pipes to capture genetic material for it to be analyzed in the laboratory.