Anthropology Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences

When SMU anthropologist Maryann Cairns joined an environmental research team dedicated to keeping Costa Rican beaches safe from wastewater, no one anticipated the research would help monitor COVID-19

Mirage News

Originally Posted: July 30, 2020

At the end of last year, scientists from USF and Southern Methodist University (SMU) wrapped up an intense two-year field season on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica with colleagues at the Costa Rican Water and Sewage Authority’s Water Laboratory. With more than 5,000 beach surveys, 500 behavioral observations and 80 interviews to digest, and water quality data to crunch, it was time to celebrate this phase of their NSF-funded coastal health study called MERA, which included several trainings by the USF team to help their colleagues get up to speed on a suite of environmental monitoring techniques.

It was December 2019, a time when working side-by-side was a fine thing to do and facial expressions – like the laid-back, friendly smiles of so many Costa Ricans – were easy to see.

In a case of sweet seaside serendipity, the techniques the Costa Rican team learned to keep their beaches safe would prove fundamental in their ability to keep their nation’s people safe when a novel viral pandemic threw the whole world into a tailspin in 2020.

“God’s timing was perfect,” said Darner Mora Alvarado, MPh, director of the Costa Rican Water and Sewage Authority’s Water Laboratory, which is technically called the Laboratorio Nacional de Aguas del Instituto Costarricense de Acueductos y Alcantarillados (LNA). “Without our work with USF on the MERA Investigation, we would not have been prepared to take on this challenge.”

When Mora and his team saw reports from scientists around the world that the virus that causes COVID-19, is excreted in feces and can be detected in wastewater, even before people show symptoms, they got to work. Within a few months, they built a wastewater-based coronavirus surveillance program that complements other COVID-19 monitoring strategies and gives public health officials an early head’s up for potential hot spots of virus activity.

Detecting the coronavirus in wastewater was a research first for Costa Rica.

The program has drawn praise from around the world and placed Costa Rica on the map as a pioneer in wastewater surveillance. Their program rivals those in countries such as the United States, Brazil, the Netherlands, Japan, France, and Australia – all research goliaths by comparison.

“The international media response was very positive,” Mora said. He and his team have since consulted with other countries in Latin America and continue to engage with others around the world to share expertise and protocols.

Erin Symonds, PhD, leads the MERA Investigation on the ground in Costa Rica and has worked with the Costa Rican team for the last four years. She, too, is participating in international research collaborations on coronavirus wastewater surveillance and now consulting with groups around the world who are interested in wastewater surveillance. Symonds is a postdoctoral scholar who is advised by Mya Breitbart, PhD, professor at the USF College of Marine Science. Breitbart and Valerie Harwood, PhD, professor in the USF Department of Integrative Biology, are principal investigators on the MERA Investigation along with Maryann Cairns, PhD, an anthropology professor at SMU.

“I’m truly excited for my colleagues here in Costa Rica, who were poised and ready to go,” said Symonds, who has lived in Costa Rica since 2015. “This is an impressive accomplishment that demonstrates their dedication and innovative ability to adapt techniques developed in other contexts to improve the COVID-19 response in Costa Rica.”

Breitbart shared the sentiment. “This is a remarkable achievement for our colleagues in Costa Rica, and we’re just proud we played a small role in it,” she said.

Performing this kind of wastewater analysis in Costa Rica is challenging because less than 25 percent of the population is connected to a sewer system. To date the Costa Rican Water and Sewage Authority’s Water Laboratory has collected samples from 25 different cities and sites. Before doing any sampling in a given area, the team studies the community’s sanitation systems and protocols to figure out the best tactical approach to retrieving a representative wastewater sample, whether it’s from a wastewater treatment plant, septic tank, stormwater collection system, or even surface water that may be contaminated with sewage.

“MERA and our colleagues at USF encouraged us to believe that we can do science at a high level,” said Pablo Cesar Rivera Navarro, MSc, a microbiologist at LNA and coordinator of its Water, Environment and Health Research Division. “This experience is a great example of the incredible impact collaborations between academic and public institutions can have.”

Andrei Badilla Aguilar, a water quality researcher at LNA, said he and the team are deeply grateful for the mentoring they received – and continue to receive – through the MERA Investigation, which is funded through 2022. “In particular the advice we’ve received from Dr. Symonds has been key to our success,” he said. Adriana González Fernández, a PhD student in Harwood’s lab at USF, was also key to the success story, as she provided three months of lab-based training for the LNA team with Symonds’ guidance.

MERA stands for the key research areas covered in the program: medio ambiente (environment), etnografía (ethnography), evaluación de reisgos (risk assessment), and calidad de agua (water quality). In addition to the key partners in USF, SMU and the Costa Rican Water and Sewage Authority’s Water Laboratory, the investigation, which started in 2016, includes consultants from Florida-based Biological Consulting Services, Inc., several graduate students, nonprofit organizations MarViva and OneSea, as well as Costa Rican undergraduates from Costa Rican Universities, and other collaborators. Its unique cross-disciplinary approach combines water quality measurements with information collected about human activities and health on the beach to inform beach management.

“MERA wouldn’t be MERA without the team at the LNA,” said Cairns. “They are more than collaborators; they are co-innovators and friends. Their recent achievements in coronavirus surveillance are so impressive, showing they are truly leaders in the region and throughout the world.”

Next, the LNA hopes to increase the number of surveillance sites, particularly as the pandemic advances, Mora said. At the end of March, Costa Rica had about 250 COVID patients reported by the Ministry of Health and by early July that number was creeping toward 4600.

“This was a very important achievement for our laboratory, the Costa Rican Water and Sewage Authority, and for the entire country,” said Mora.