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UC San Diego scientists searching for new omicron variant in wastewater

Scientists at UC San Diego are looking for omicron and other COVID-19 variants in a unique way.

It’s something we all do every day and you could be forgiven for not giving a thought to where wastewater goes after you flush. But at UC San Diego, a group of scientists thinks about it a lot.

“We’ve been regularly collecting wastewater from multiple sites across campus on a daily basis for a while now," said Dr. Louise Laurent, a UC San Diego in obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences professor and scientist.

The wastewater is collected by gray contraptions that sit above manholes at various points across campus. As Laurent said, they’ve been monitoring for COVID-19 at UC San Diego for a while now. But now, they’re keeping a close watch out for the omicron variant.

Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego
A UC San Diego scientist collects wastewater from a collection unit on campus in this undated photo.

“What’s different is what we look for in the results," Laurent said. "For example, the omicron variant has a deletion in the spike protein gene."

When the virus, in whatever variant shows up, people who live or work in the building it came from are notified and asked to get a nasal swab test. The advantage of this method is that people don’t have to do anything until a positive sample turns up.

UC San Diego scientists searching for new omicron variant in wastewater
Listen to this story by John Carroll.

“So, we think that we’ve picked up cases that way," Laurent said. "We also, as you might know, we’re able to pick up, say, the Delta variant earlier than we saw in individual testing."


UC San Diego is also working with the San Diego Unified School District, which collects samples from numerous schools and sends them to the lab for testing, casting a wide net to detect any COVID-19 outbreaks, but now, especially omicron.