Post — 15 Min Read

The Mission to Detect Covid in Real Time in Wastewater

By Fin Murray, COO of Integumen, MD of Rinocloud.

Almost 5 years ago our team at Rinocloud, a subsidiary of Integumen, started talking about how microfluidics, photonics and AI could be blended together in a platform that had the potential to identify pathogens in fluids in real time. The discussion was based on using existing proven techniques from engineering, science and artificial intelligence and creating a workflow that involved:

  • Manufacturing glass microchips the size of sim cards,
  • Boring tunnels into the chips of around 10-100 microns in size,
  • Pushing fluid samples through the channels, forcing contaminants to line up in the confined space,
  • Zapping those channels continuously with light,
  • Using AI to detect the slight changes in light if a pathogen was in the channel.
  • Using AI to identify the pathogen.

A plan was put in place and an ambitious project with a team of physicists, engineers and microbiologists began looking at three main pathogenic targets: Malaria in blood, Mastitis in milk and E.coli in water. As some of the team had water and wastewater backgrounds, the project naturally gravitated towards E.coli.

Glass microchip, fluidics

Fast Forward to 2019

Five years later, with funding provided by Enterprise Ireland and the Environmental Protection Agency, along with the cooperation of domain expert colleagues in University of Cambridge (“Engineering”), Cork Institute of Technology (“Photonics”) and Rinocloud (“AI”), the Remote Automated Water Test (“RAWTest”), was successfully launched.

The scientific journey along the way involved physics, chemistry and biology. The engineering journey involved glass microchips, 3D printing and adapting and miniaturising various types of kit. The software journey involved getting to grips with copious amounts of data, while using AI to make sense of it.

Deep Learning, Pushing to the Verge

The journey was full of challenges, deep learning and a continuous pushing to the verge of science because we were chasing a wily adversary that is roughly 40 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair; only 2 microns in size, yet more than capable of contaminating a drinking water system or closing down a beach for swimming.

All that aggregated and accumulated knowledge is now being amplified as the new mission is to identify a much more deadly adversary, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

A team of Integumen staff, partners and customers is well on its way to adapting our RAWtest platform to detect and identify the virus in wastewater in real time. We are also training new AI models to extrapolate the size of the cluster infected from that detection.

This project represents a ground-breaking initiative for control of the Pandemic. The platform is relevant for governments, cities, local authorities, industries, military, corporates, transport companies, etc. urgently seeking real-time identification of local Covid 19 hotspots, the prediction of fresh coronavirus outbreaks and for advice on required areas of containment.

SARS-CoV-2 detection in water

International Collaboration to Beat COVID-19

It couldn’t be achieved without the international cooperation of our partners and colleagues in Ireland, UK, China and the US.

Silicon wafers are produced in the Tyndall National Institute in Ireland. These are shipped to our labs in York, England, where the chips are coated and impregnated with pathogen binding receptors. These receptors are leading edge technologies from the UK’s Aptamer Group and Avacta plc and are designed specifically to attract and bind the virus.

The impregnated chips are then shipped back to the CAPPA Photonics lab in the Cork Institute of Technology, Ireland, to the same team that we’ve been working with over the past 5 years on the RAWTest system. This team of physicists is adapting the RAWtest platform to generate a greatly enhanced photonics signal to constantly monitor the chip. As soon as the virus binds, the data generated is being picked up immediately by the AI – to signal that Covid 19 is present in the sample and to predict the size of the cluster.

Silicon wafers

Real-time AI Detection of COVID-19

Our labs in Cork, Ireland and York, England, are containment level two (“CL2”) labs. In these labs we are working with a pseudo virus – basically a synthetic that looks like, acts like, has the same shape and weight – but without the deadliness of the real thing.

But with our partner, University of Aberdeen, we have access to the actual virus (SARS-CoV-2 England/2/2020) and a CL3 level laboratory. The relationship with Aberdeen began with Labskin, another subsidiary of Integumen. Labskin’s 3D laboratory grown human skin model is being used to test the effectiveness of handwashes, sanitisers, and mouthwashes on COVID-19. With Aberdeen, we’re learning much about the virus, especially how to handle it when setting up tests, including wastewater tests.

And we expect tests to happen over the summer including with research partners in the UK but also with our customers in the US where field trials are already being prepared. We are also looking at specific areas of testing with partners, such as the monitoring of water and waste water on cruise liners for bacterial/viral pathogens.

Labskin’s 3D laboratory grown human skin model

Retrofitting and New Installations of COVID-19 Detection Kits

Adapting our RAWTest platform to identify COVID-19 is one thing, getting the platform mass produced and delivered to markets around the world are also key parts of the project. In Shanghai and Delaware, our Modern Water colleagues are reengineering their wastewater and monitoring solutions. This is a business with 30 years’ experience and thousands of sites where its platforms manage and monitor wastewater systems. Integumen has a fast-retrofit solution, where we embed our system into theirs. However, in parallel, we are also designing with partners that can manufacture and scale across 4 continents.

Modern Water CTM – Continuous Toxicity Monitoring

Collaborating to Combat the Global Health Crisis

There is an Irish word, “Meitheal”. It means a gathering or a coming together of people to help each other. This project has different people, different companies, from different continents, all with different skills and technologies. Some of our staff just said: “what if?”

  • “What if we adapt the RAWTest?”
  • “What if we embed receptors?”
  • “What if we could retrofit into existing monitoring systems?”

And our partners in Ireland, England, Scotland, China and the USA, answered: “Why not?”

Fin is main board director and Chief Operating Officer of Integumen plc and Managing Director of Labskin with responsibilities for leading and supporting the groups divisions across health, environment and software. An experienced C level executive he has started and grown companies internationally and emphasises partnerships and collaborations as routes to expanding. A founder of data and AI company Rinocloud, acquired by Integumen in June, 2019, Fin has led the deployment of software, data management and workflow management across the group and integrated the latest AI technologies across services for clients in all divisions of the business.