Though not a replacement for clinical laboratory testing, the CDC says the surveillance system will help slow spread of COVID-19 in vulnerable communities

Clinical laboratory testing for COVID-19 is receiving an ally. In mid-August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced they were initiating a National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In collaboration with other federal agencies, the NWSS will work with state, local, territorial, and tribal health departments to collect data on wastewater (aka, sewage) samples throughout the United States.

The goal of the NWSS is to detect SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, before it spreads by detecting traces of it in local sewer systems. The level of the virus detected in wastewater can be a leading indicator of a worsening outbreak in a community, according to a CDC statement

“Quantitative SARS-CoV-2 measurements in untreated sewage can provide information on changes in total COVID-19 infection in the community contributing to that wastewater treatment plant,” noted the CDC.

People infected with the coronavirus discard traces of it—whether they are symptomatic or asymptomatic—and levels of the virus in untreated sewage can provide scientists with information about the degree of outbreak in specific areas.

The NWSS will not include or monitor homes that use septic tanks or entities with decentralized systems that treat their own waste, such as hospitals, universities, and prisons. 

Not a Replacement for Clinical Laboratory Testing

The CDC stressed that sewage testing is not meant to replace clinical laboratory testing, but it can be a valuable tool in communities where COVID-19 tests are underutilized or unavailable. Wastewater testing, CDC noted in its statement, could have an enormous reach as 80% of households in the US are connected to a municipal sewage system. 

The CDC is not actively taking samples from wastewater, but relying on local partners to take samples, test them, and enter data into the NWSS portal for the purpose of summarizing and interpreting for public health action.

The agency predicts that participation in a national database will ensure data comparability across separate jurisdictions. 

Could Testing Raw Sewage Be More Effective than Contact Tracing for Tracking COVID-19 Outbreaks?

A Yale University study published in Nature Biotechnology, titled, “Measurement of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in Wastewater Tracks Community Infection Dynamics,” detected SARS-CoV-2 concentrations in sewage sludge in  New Haven, Conn., over a 10-week period earlier this year. The results of the study “show the utility of viral RNA monitoring in municipal wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 infection surveillance at a population-wide level,” the study authors noted.

The published study states that “SARS-CoV-2 RNA was detected throughout the more than 10-week study and, when adjusted for time lags, tracked the rise and fall of cases seen in SARS-CoV-2 clinical test results and local COVID-19 hospital admissions. Relative to these indicators, SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations in sludge were 0–2 [days] ahead of SARS-CoV-2 positive test results by date of specimen collection, 0–2 [days] ahead of the percentage of positive tests by date of specimen collection, 1–4 [days]  ahead of local hospital admissions and 6–8 [days] ahead of SARS-CoV-2 positive test results by reporting date.”

The Yale researchers concluded, “Our results demonstrate that measurement of SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations in primary sludge provides an approach to estimate changes in COVID-19 prevalence on a population level. Sludge results were not a leading indicator compared to positive test results or percentage of positive tests by date of specimen collection. However, they led hospitalizations by 1–4 [days] and test results by report date by ~1 week. Thus, in communities where test reporting is delayed, sludge results, if analyzed and reported on the same day as sampling, can provide substantial advance notice of infection dynamics.”

Jordan Peccia, Jr., PhD (above), Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science, and study author, told NBC News, “There’s still a lot more to do. We’re one of the earlier groups to have developed a robust relationship between wastewater and coronavirus cases, but this is just a first step.” He added, “It doesn’t replace contact tracing. [But] if we know a little bit ahead of time, we can raise the alarm.” (Photo copyright: Yale University.)

Sewage Testing for COVID-19 Around the World

Sewage testing can provide data to complement other collected information about COVID-19 and steer public health decision-making. However, the CDC notes that “it is not possible to reliably and accurately predict the number of infected individuals in a community based on sewage testing” and that “more data on fecal shedding by infected individuals over the course of disease are needed to better understand the limits of detection.” 

Nevertheless, some experts have leaned heavily on sewage sample testing for their conclusions about the origination of the coronavirus. In August, Dark Daily reported on a theory based on finding remnants of SARS-CoV-2 in sewage systems that suggested the virus may not have originated in Wuhan, China. Analysis of sewage samples in Italy, Spain, and Brazil indicated the virus was present in those countries before the disease was known to exist outside of China. The controversy over these findings has motivated virologists to expand wastewater testing.

The creation of the NWSS by the CDC validates growing interest in new methods of testing for infectious disease. Lower cost, faster response time, more automation of genetic sequencing, and improved analytical software has enabled this type of testing to become a useful tool. It would be wise for clinical laboratory managers to monitor the expanded use of new testing technologies for infectious diseases. 

—JP Schlingman

Related Information:

CDC to Start Surveying Nation’s Wastewater

National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS): A New Public Health Tool to Understand COVID-19 Spread in a Community

The CDC Wants State and Local Sewage Systems Tested for Coronavirus

CDC Developing Sewage Surveillance System for COVID-19

CDC Will Survey Wastewater for COVID-19 Spread

‘Sewer Sludge’ Detects Coronavirus Outbreaks Days Faster than Contact Tracing, Study Finds

Measurement of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in Wastewater Tracks Community Infection Dynamics

Studies Finding Remnants of SARS-CoV-2 in Sewage Suggest COVID-19 May Not Have Originated at Wuhan Market, Some Scientists Dispute the Findings