October 1, 2020

MIT is exploring the use of a new tool in our fight against Covid-19 on campus: We are launching a pilot project to detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, in wastewater from seven buildings on campus. Wastewater-based detection of SARS-CoV-2 is already in use at numerous other colleges and universities across the country, and it is proving to be an effective early warning system for Covid-19 at an aggregate level. Through the MIT pilot, a team of researchers and staff aims to establish and validate a wastewater-based Covid-19 monitoring system on campus.

This initiative, approved by the Legal, Ethical, Equity (LEE) committee, will complement MIT’s existing efforts to detect Covid-19 and will not replace the current medical testing requirement for individuals on our campus. We expect that wastewater-based detection will serve as an effective long-term approach to monitoring SARS-CoV-2 in our community as a complement to clinical testing, and it could potentially serve as a “frontline” monitoring approach once the overall prevalence of the virus has subsided in the Boston area.

This program is a partnership between the Alm Lab (Biological Engineering), MIT Facilities, the Office of Environment, Health & Safety (EHS), Housing & Residential Services (HRS), and MIT Medical, and is expected to run through the fall semester.

Wastewater provides evidence of infection as soon as an individual begins to shed SARS-CoV-2 into the waste stream (via fecal excretion), which can be well before that individual feels sick or seeks medical care. In this way, wastewater-based disease monitoring provides a comprehensive view of disease prevalence that includes both symptomatic and asymptomatic infections. It can therefore serve as an early warning system ahead of clinical detection. Because it is not limited by clinical testing availability, wastewater-based testing provides an unbiased view of disease dynamics and allows us to monitor pathogens and be better informed for possible interventions.

SARS-CoV-2 is detectable in wastewater via fecal excretion. We are testing for traces of the RNA (genetic materials) of the virus. A sampling device installed in the wastewater exit pipes of the pilot buildings continuously samples small volumes of wastewater. These samples will be collected daily and tested for SARS-CoV-2. No personally identifiable information will be derived from these samples, and we will not use them for any purpose other than monitoring SARS-CoV-2.

EST Associates will perform all on-site collection, apparatus maintenance, area protection, and delivery of samples to the Alm Laboratory at MIT. EST Associates is an established vendor that supports the chemical waste systems in MIT buildings and the Central Utility Plant. Once the samples have been collected, the Alm Lab will sterilize and analyze the samples using qRT-PCR to determine whether they contain SARS-CoV-2.

Results of daily testing and analysis are sent to MIT’s Covid Monitoring Team (CMT).

If the virus is detected in a building’s wastewater, we may ask occupants to get tested at MIT Medical sooner than otherwise scheduled.

Sampling points have been selected in areas with no or very limited public access, such as locked maintenance rooms and basements. In buildings where sampling sites must be established in publicly accessible areas (e.g., basement garage), the area will be cordoned off and there will be signage indicating that wastewater testing is occurring. The sampling device is fully enclosed and locked, and will not release aerosolized wastewater into the air. The team is working intensively with the Office of Environment, Health & Safety and MIT Medical to ensure the safety of involved facilities personnel, research personnel, building inhabitants, and the public.

The following buildings have been selected based on their utility configurations:

  • MIT Sloan (E62)
  • Random Hall (NW61)
  • Sidney-Pacific (NW86)
  • McCormick Hall (W4)
  • Simmons Hall (W79)
  • Tang Hall (W84)
  • Westgate (W85)

The pilot will take place during the fall term. The team will assess the feasibility of extending the study into the spring term.

The Covid Monitoring Team (CMT) will receive the daily analysis of the testing samples. The CMT constantly monitors to determine cross-Institute issues and impacts, makes recommendations for action and initiates notifications, and coordinates actions and operations

  • Members: Suzanne Blake (lead), Steve Bradt, Rich Crook, Rick Danheiser, John Dozier, Andrea Finnin, John Fernandez, Suzanne Glassburn, Ron Hasseltine, Joe Higgins, Peko Hosoi, Xinzhou Li, Suzy Nelson, Mark Silis, Cecilia Stuopis, Jay Wilcoxson

Covid Decision Team (CDT)

  • Members: Ramona Allen, Suzanne Glassburn, Alfred Ironside, Sanjay Sarma, Marty Schmidt, Glen Shor, Maria Zuber

The LEE Committee has also reviewed and approved this pilot. See the membership.

More information about the Alm Lab’s work on wastewater-based Covid-19 surveillance can be found at:

Contact the pilot team at wb-pilot@mit.edu.

See the MIT News article and video about this pilot.