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Boston-area coronavirus wastewater data shows U.K. variant is predominant strain

Boston Herald logo Boston Herald 5/5/2021 Rick Sobey
a large building: BOSTON, MA. APRIL 14, 2021: The MWRA's Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant in Boston, Massachusetts. (Staff photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald) © Provided by Boston Herald BOSTON, MA. APRIL 14, 2021: The MWRA's Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant in Boston, Massachusetts. (Staff photo by Nicolaus Czarnecki/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

The more contagious U.K. coronavirus variant has represented more than 50% of Boston area coronavirus sewage samples in the most recent week of wastewater data, yet more evidence that the variant has become the “most dominant variant of concern” in Massachusetts, an infectious disease expert tells the Herald.

The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s COVID-19 wastewater tracker has been including screening results for the B.1.1.7 (U.K.) variant in Greater Boston sewage since March.

The trackers from Cambridge-based Biobot Analytics have been consistently detecting the variant since March 20, but they’re now able to determine how much of the variant strain is in the region’s samples.

During the last seven days of samples in the southern region of the Boston area, the B.1.1.7 variant has been hovering around 66% of the amount of virus in the wastewater — and the peak was 83% on April 23. In the northern region, the variant has averaged 55%, with the peak of 60% on April 25.

“It shows how B.1.1.7 has become the most dominant variant of concern in Massachusetts,” said Boston University infectious diseases specialist Davidson Hamer. “It suggests it has a fitness advantage and is displacing previous variants.

“It’s worrisome with more than half being the predominant strain because it’s more transmissible,” he added.

Sewage samples are taken several times a week for MWRA’s pilot study to track wastewater at the Deer Island Treatment Plant for indicators of COVID-19. The samples are analyzed by Biobot Analytics, a wastewater epidemiology company that recently announced it had successfully detected the B.1.1.7 variant in sewage samples.

“I think having a breakdown for variants is important in that it will allow for better monitoring the epidemic and to see if there is a transition to newer variants that may be more transmissible or more virulent,” said Boston University epidemiology professor Matthew Fox.

“We are in a race against these newer variants to get people vaccinated before any increase in severity associated with them has a chance to really take hold as we are likely seeing in other countries and other parts of the U.S.,” he added.

The Biobot researchers are also continuing research and development to identify other variants of concern in wastewater.

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Also this week, the Middlesex Jail and House of Correction announced that it became the first county correctional facility in the nation to partner with Biobot Analytics to monitor and identify the presence of COVID-19 in wastewater.

As part of the testing, the Billerica facility has also opted into Biobot’s variant detection program, with any positive samples further examined for the presence of the B.1.1.7 variant.

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