Experts Offer Recommendations for COVID-19 Wastewater Surveillance

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The Water Research Foundation (WRF) recently published the recommended best practices from global experts that contributed to WRF’s international water research summit on wastewater surveillance of the genetic signal of COVID-19 sewersheds.

This paper offers insight from global leaders on the current state of knowledge on wastewater sampling, molecular genetics tools, interpretation of results, and communication of this information to stakeholders. The summit also provided recommended near-term research opportunities related to wastewater surveillance of the genetic signal of COVID-19 in sewersheds. WRF is currently implementing several research projects to accelerate progress in this critically important area.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, scientific studies demonstrated that the genetic material of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) — an enveloped RNA virus — could frequently be detected in the feces of infected individuals. This provided a strong indication that the genetic signal could potentially be detected in wastewater.

WRF is funding additional research to support the global water sector as it investigates the potential for wastewater surveillance for the genetic signal of SARS-CoV-2 as an indication of the distribution of COVID-19 within a community. Learn more about WRF’s COVID-19 guidance and resources here.

Researchers join forces

In related news, researchers at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Stanford University and the University of Notre Dame are collaborating to create a “startup blueprint” for municipalities that plan to implement SARS-CoV-2 sewage surveillance. It would address dual challenges: implementation of best practices for sample collection, analysis and interpretation, and speedy and appropriate translation and communication of results to public health decision makers. 

The goal of the project, which is supported by a $250,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is to transfer lessons learned to other cities and regions to aid in the deployment of impactful wastewater surveillance programs for COVID-19 and other pathogens that arise as future health threats. 

The project extends translational work being conducted in partnership with the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection by, respectively, Sandra McLellan, professor in the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, and Andrea Silverman, assistant professor of civil and urban engineering at NYU-Tandon. A central goal of the collaboration is making data from their research usable to health authorities and policymakers.

McLellan is involved in implementing a surveillance program that generates SARS-CoV-2 data for the state of Wisconsin, including weekly data at 42 wastewater treatment plants in the most populated counties. Silverman is working with the NYC DEP to implement a wastewater monitoring program in NYC that can quantify genetic markers for SARS-CoV-2 and potentially other human pathogens. The program will standardize methods and develop quality controls at the NYC DEP’s laboratory at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Resource Recovery Facility in Brooklyn to routinely evaluate samples from NYC’s 14 wastewater treatment plants. 

“The pandemic response is constantly evolving, and data and knowledge for decision-making is lacking,” says McLellan, the lead investigator on the grant. “This project will bridge the gap between rapidly evolving research in wastewater surveillance and the public health entities that can use this information to better respond to this threat.”

The proposal will focus on two key objectives:  

  • To support the ongoing initiative led by Silverman in partnership with the NYC DEP to develop and implement NYC’s SARS-CoV-2 wastewater monitoring program; and
  • To convene a national panel of experts from academia, wastewater utilities and health departments who would devise a process for translating the data for public health use and develop communication networks needed to convey the data between city and state agencies. 

“These methods may make it possible to proactively scan for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 and other pathogens, even before cases appear,” says Silverman. “By implementing these monitoring techniques, the NYC DEP and other wastewater utilities can complement other forms of testing traditionally used for disease surveillance — not just for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

Besides McLellan and Silverman’s efforts, other co-investigators on the grant bring experience from wastewater surveillance projects around the country. Kyle Bibby, an associate professor in Notre Dame’s College of Engineering, is currently working on SARS-CoV-2 wastewater monitoring methods with support from the National Science Foundation’s RAPID Response grant. Alexandria Boehm, a Stanford professor of civil and environmental engineering, is leading a large donor-funded project to test 50 wastewater treatment plants around the United States and develop a model that incorporates health and epidemiology data. 

McLellan says using data from Wisconsin, New York and other projects across the nation would make it possible to develop a national monitoring network, and that the findings from the expert panel and surveillance methods development will also be offered as open source to public health officials and practitioners.


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