The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a new wave of interest in sewage surveillance as communities around the world look for new ways to track and combat the spread of the virus. Wastewater monitoring isn’t a novel concept. Since John Snow’s famous map of the 1854 cholera outbreak in London, public health experts have been interested in what we can learn from the water we flush. The new field of wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE), initially developed to track illicit drug use in communities and most recently applied to monitor the opioid crisis, has now trained its focus on the new coronavirus.
Detection technologies and capabilities are constantly changing and adapting to meet the needs of new public health challenges. For example, when the World Health Organization embarked on its Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) in 1988, virus detection and quantification in the environment was primarily accomplished through cell culture methods. The discovery of the quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) method in the early 1990s opened new frontiers in virus identification and made significant contributions to GPEI. In the past decade, researchers studied the efficacy of sewage surveillance in predicting outbreaks for such well-known viral pathogens as norovirus and Hepatitis A. There is still much to learn about the practicality of this approach with regards to the current pandemic, but some information is already available while the number of studies in this area continues to grow.
Here’s what we know so far:
Here’s what we still need to know:
More than a dozen research groups worldwide have started analyzing wastewater for the new coronavirus to estimate the number of infections in communities and develop an early-warning system. A team from the University of Michigan and Stanford University, led by Krista Wigginton, is developing a COVID-19 monitoring methodology that can aid the public health response in the absence of sufficient clinical testing. Biobot Analytics, MIT, Harvard, and Brigham are working together to quantify the scale of infection by analyzing wastewater samples and comparing them to the number of reported cases in the sampled community. The University of Arizona WEST Center is developing a monitoring program to allow COVID-19 sewage surveillance that could be deployed by any interested water resource recovery facility, while researchers from the Arizona State University – home of the Human Health Observatory, the largest wastewater based epidemiology network and sample repository – have recently added SARS-CoV-2 to the range of health indicators subject to continuous monitoring.
Current actively tracks new developments in sensors and water quality monitoring technologies, including through H2NOW Chicago, our near-real time microbial monitoring project on the Chicago River. We are actively exploring the relevance of these COVID-19 monitoring projects with partners in our region. If you are interested in learning more, there are several upcoming opportunities to connect with national experts on these topics:
Watch this space for more updates on this important area of innovation at the intersection of wastewater and public health, and the meantime, stay safe and informed with the latest on water and COVID-19 at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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