Wastewater Analysis Continues to be an Effective Tool for Tracking Deadly Infectious Diseases in Human Communities
In addition to viruses, wastewater analysis can also be used to detect the presence of chemical substances such as opioids
Wastewater surveillance and analysis continues to be a useful tool for detecting the prevalence of viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in a community. Perhaps more importantly, wastewater surveillance can fill in gaps where clinical laboratory testing data may be days or weeks behind the true spread of viral infections.
One sign of the value of testing wastewater for infectious diseases is the fact that government officials are financing a continuing program of wastewater testing. In September, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) awarded a contract to conduct wastewater surveillance/analysis worth millions of dollars to Verily Life Sciences, a Google company, rather than renewing its contract with Biobot Analytics, which had been doing the work since 2020. One interesting twist in the award of this contract is how an ensuing dispute pulled the plug on a significant portion of the wastewater analysis in this country.
In their September Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), the CDC highlighted a CDC study during which wastewater samples were taken from 40 wastewater treatment plants located in Wisconsin’s three largest cities. The samples were collected weekly and tested for influenza and RSV. The findings were then compared with data regarding emergency department (ED) visits for those diseases.
The CDC found that higher detections of flu and RSV were associated with higher rates of ED visits for both illnesses. The study also suggests that wastewater might detect the spread of these viruses earlier than ED visit data alone.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, wastewater surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 provided valuable insight into community incidence of COVID-19,” said Peter DeJonge, PhD (above), a CDC Career Epidemiology Field Officer, in an interview with Infectious Disease Special Edition. “[The CDC’s] report supports the idea that wastewater surveillance also has the potential to serve as a useful method with which to track community spread of influenza and RSV.” Local clinical laboratories are also involved in the CDC’s wastewater surveillance programs. (Photo copyright: CDC.)
Keeping Communities Informed about Spread of Viral Infections
The CDC’s study was conducted from August 2022 to March 2023. The wastewater samples from all three cities tested positive for the viruses in advance of increases in ED visits. After the ED visits for those viruses had subsided, the viral material remained in sewersheds for up to three months.
“Both influenza and RSV can cause substantial amounts of illness, hospitalization, and even death during annual epidemics, which often occur during winter months in the US,” Peter DeJonge, PhD, a CDC Career Epidemiology Field Officer assigned to the Chicago Department of Public Health, told Infectious Disease Special Edition (IDSE). “Clinical providers and public health officials benefit from surveillance data to understand when and where these diseases are spreading in a community each year. This type of data can help prepare clinics [and clinical laboratories] for anticipated cases, tailor public health messaging, and encourage timely vaccination.”
“The collective burden from these respiratory viruses is staggering. With these viruses circulating simultaneously and potentially shifting in seasonality and severity, communities must be able to understand the full impact of each of these illnesses to inform awareness and public health responses that can prevent infections, hospitalizations, and even deaths,” said Mariana Matus, PhD, CEO and cofounder of Biobot Analytics, in an August press release announcing the launch of a “Respiratory Illnesses Panel” that will monitor wastewater for Influenzas A and B (seasonal flu), Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), and SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19).
“Traditional testing methods for these illnesses do not provide a comprehensive picture of the number of people infected due to inaccurate reporting, as well as asymptomatic or misdiagnosed cases,” Matus continued. “By monitoring wastewater concurrently for influenza, RSV, and SARS-CoV-2, we can fill in these gaps and provide important information to communities.”
CDC Moves to Change Wastewater Surveillance Contractor Mid-stream
As new variants of SARS-CoV-2 emerge, a recent contract dispute may be the cause of a time delay in efforts to perform wastewater surveillance for the disease, as well as for other viral infections, according to Politico.
The CDC’s move to replace Biobot Analytics with Verily Life Sciences to do wastewater surveillance has led to Biobot filing a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
According to World Socialist Web Site (WSWS), “The scope of the [Biobot] contract [to provide extended data for the public health agency’s National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS)] included data from more than 400 locations from over 250 counties across the entire United States, covering 60 million people. On top of this, Biobot also conducted genomic sequencing to identify the latest variants in circulation.”
About one quarter of the wastewater testing sites in the country have been shut down due to Biobot’s contract being suspended in September. The remaining 1,200 sites that are not covered under the original contract will continue wastewater testing, Politico reported.
The GAO hopes to have a decision on the contract dispute in January. Verily says it is ready to proceed with testing in all locations and already has its infrastructure in place.
“We are committed to working with the CDC to advance the goals of the … testing program, initiate testing on the samples already delivered when allowed to resume work, and make wastewater data available as quickly as possible,” Bradley White, PhD, Principal Scientist/Director at Verily, told Politico.
Under the terms of Verily’s contract, the company will collect samples from wastewater treatment centers cross the county and analyze the samples for COVID-19 and the mpox (monkey pox) virus.
This contract marks the first agreement between the CDC and Verily.
The CDC has not disclosed why it decided to change contractors, but it is probable that cost may have been played a role in the decision. Verily’s contract is for $38 million over the course of five years and Biobot’s most recent contract was for around $31 million for a period of less than 18 months, Politico reported.
In a LinkedIn post, Matus reported that Biobot had already laid off 35% of its staff due to the contract decision by the CDC.
Competition in Wastewater Surveillance Market
When seeking viruses in wastewater, scientists use gene-based detection methods to locate and amplify genetic signs of pathogens. But public health officials are just beginning to tap into the potential opportunities that may exist in the analysis of data present in wastewater.
Wastewater surveillance is also being looked at as a way to combat America’s opioid epidemic.
“Wastewater surveillance is becoming more mature and more mainstream month after month, year over year,” Matus told Time.
Thus, regardless of which companies end up working with the CDC, it appears that wastewater surveillance and analysis, which requires a great deal of clinical laboratory testing, will continue to help fight the spread of deadly viral infections, as well as possibly the nation’s drug epidemic.