People who are infected with the coronavirus shed the pathogen in their stool. By measuring and sequencing the viral material present in sewage, scientists can determine whether cases are rising in a particular area and which variants are circulating. People excrete the virus even if they never seek testing or treatment. So wastewater surveillance has become a critical tool for keeping tabs on the virus, especially as Covid-19 testing has increasingly shifted to the home.

Opentrons Labworks Inc., a laboratory robotics company, created the Pandemic Response Lab in 2020 to provide high-volume, high-speed coronavirus testing and, later, coronavirus sequencing of patient samples. The search for viral variants in wastewater involves essentially the same process.

“It just so happens that that sample is not coming from a person but from wastewater, which, you know, has some elements that came from people,” said Jonathan Brennan-Badal, the chief executive of Opentrons.

To sequence the genetic material, the Pandemic Response Lab first converts the RNA into DNA, a process known as reverse transcription.

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Wastewater Disease Tracking: A Photographic Journey From the Sewer to the Lab

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