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Middlesex jail uses wastewater testing to detect early virus outbreaks

The Middlesex Jail and House of Correction in Billerica has introduced a program to search for traces of COVID-19 in wastewater, the county sheriff’s office announced Monday.

The jail hopes to use wastewater analysis run by Cambridge-based Biobot Analytics to spot signals of outbreaks before symptoms appear and the virus can be detected through the testing of individuals, Middlesex Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian said.

“What I’m seeing all seems to be we’ve got it completely under control. But using Biobot is a method of redundancy, so we can just kind of ensure that what we are seeing is actually occurring,” Koutoujian said in an interview.

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The program has been in place for a month, during which it has indicated that there were no undetected cases at the facility, according to Kevin Maccioli, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office.

Maccioli said the program found amounts of the virus consistent with three positive cases from newly admitted inmates during the first two weeks.

Since then, there has been no trace of COVID-19 detected in the wastewater or in individual testing of 54 incarcerated individuals.

The pilot program will continue to test the wastewater weekly for 26 weeks.

Both Koutoujian and Biobot president Newsha Ghaeli said they are unaware of any other county correctional facilities in the country using wastewater as an early warning system for COVID-19. The company has previously tracked the virus through the treatment plants in more than 500 communities, including at the massive Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant, Ghaeli said.

However, implementation at a correctional facility came with additional challenges because staff at the county jail must collect the samples before they ever get to a treatment facility. They use a special device to draw small amounts of wastewater from the complex’s sewage system, then they deliver it to Biobot.

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Koutoujian said the program has been in the works since December, but training staff took months.

There has been “no known case, globally, of anyone being infected via sewage or stool for COVID,” Ghaeli said, but staff wear personal protective equipment while using the automatic sampling technology.

If a sample comes back positive, Biobot further tests for the variant first detected in the United Kingdom In the coming weeks, it plans to expand testing to detect the variants from South Africa and Brazil, Ghaeli said.

For the coming fall and next flu season, the jail is considering using wastewater analysis to test for influenza. This would prevent false alarms around COVID-19 outbreaks, according to Ghaeli.

Koutoujian said he would also like to see other county jails in Massachusetts adopt the technology.

“We will let others know what we’re doing so that they can then use the experience that we’ve built to adopt and adapt those same innovations that we’ve done already,” he said. “That’s what my hope and plan is.”

A previous version of this story misstated Kevin Maccioli’s role.


Christine Mui can be reached at christine.mui@globe.com.